CUBA NEWS
August 31, 2007

CUBA NEWS
The Miami Herald

Lawmakers push a united, hard-line front on Cuba

Cuban-American lawmakers are beginning an offensive to persuade foreign governments to take a hard line on Cuba.

By Pablo Bachelet, [email protected] Posted on Fri, Aug. 31, 2007.

WASHINGTON -- After beating back efforts to ease U.S. sanctions on Cuba in Congress, Cuban-American lawmakers are embarking on a major push to isolate the Castro government on the international stage.

Miami Republican Reps. Lincoln and Mario Díaz-Balart and New Jersey Democrat Albio Sires are today wrapping up a three-day trip to the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland. The trip will be followed by another to Latin America in the coming weeks, according to members of the delegation.

The trip's organizers say the idea is to raise the international profile of dissidents on the island, call on countries to settle for nothing less than free elections in Cuba after Fidel Castro dies and present a united front of major dissident and exile groups before the world community.

But it will likely be an uphill battle. While the former Soviet-bloc nations are generally receptive, other European and Latin American nations are more skeptical, believing that U.S. sanctions have not worked and more engagement with Havana stands a better chance of bringing democratic change.

''One of the reasons why the regime has lasted so long is the lack of international solidarity, especially in Latin America,'' Lincoln Díaz-Balart told The Miami Herald by phone from Budapest. "And so the role of Europe, and especially East and Central Europe, is extraordinarily important.''

He said the effort in Latin America will be ''intensified'' because ''the timing is propitious and necessary.'' He declined to say which Latin American countries would be visited.

In a gesture thick with historical symbolism, the group is to travel today with Polish President Lech Kaczynski to Lublin in southeastern Poland to commemorate the 1982 deaths of three anti-communist protesters.

Two dissident leaders in Cuba -- Martha Beatriz Roque and Jorge García Pérez, known as ''Antúnez'' -- are expected to call in during the ceremonies. Several Miami exile activists, including Sylvia Iriondo of Mothers and Women Against Repression and Javier de Céspedes of the Directorio Democrático Cubano, traveled to Poland for the event.

The group will also reaffirm the Agreement for Democracy in Cuba. Originally drafted in 1998 ahead of Pope John Paul II's trip to Cuba, the 10-point document calls for, among other things, free elections on the island and the release of political prisoners. Organizers said more than 120 organizations, both in Cuba and abroad, have signed it.

Camila Gallardo, a spokeswoman for the Cuban American National Foundation, said her group did not sign the document in 1998 but would do so now if asked.

The emphasis on the international front marks a shift of priorities for Cuban-American lawmakers, who focused their efforts in the first part of the year in fighting back congressional initiatives to ease some sanctions against the island. Opponents of President Bush's tough line against Castro had predicted that the new Democratic majority in Congress would be more receptive to the relaxations.

Instead, amendments that would have allowed more agricultural trade with the island and cut aid to Cuban pro-democracy groups on the island and in Miami were defeated in the House.

Cuban-American lawmakers said international pressure on Havana will play a critical role after the death of Fidel Castro, who has been suffering from an undisclosed intestinal ailment since last summer. Spain in particular angered many dissidents and the Bush administration when foreign minister Miguel Angel Moratinos visited Cuba in April and then campaigned to ease European Union sanctions against the island.

''When the issue of Spain arises, my comment is we are at the same crossroads as Spain was after 45 years of the dictator [Francisco] Franco,'' said Sires, who led the delegation. He said the European Union at the time pressed Madrid to take a democratic path.

Spain's efforts have failed so far, in part because of opposition from former Soviet-bloc countries like the Czech Republic and Hungary.

This is not the first time Eastern European nations have expressed support for exile groups, and Cuban officials have attacked Prague as a stooge of U.S. interests. In October last year, several top officials from Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Lithuania took part in a seminar on Cuba's post-Castro transition held in Miami.

This week, the congressional delegation met with top government officials and nongovernmental groups in Prague. In Budapest, they met with the five main parties, all of whom expressed their support for democracy in Cuba.

The delegation thanked Hungary for taking in 29 Cuban refugees held at the U.S. Naval Base in Guantánamo, Cuba. The decision prompted Cuba to call Hungary an ''imperial accomplice'' of Washington and ''servile'' to its ''powerful and aggressive master,'' according to The Associated Press.

''You know what's very refreshing? Here they get it,'' Mario Díaz-Balart said. "They're not swayed or impressed by the lies of the dictatorship.''

Lincoln Díaz-Balart says the Eastern Europeans should ''increase their leadership'' in the European Union and European Parliament because of their "knowledge of transitions and their moral authority and experience.''

But the international campaign also faces difficult challenges, especially in Latin America, where U.S. sanctions on Cuba are unpopular.

When the embargo against Cuba is brought up, Mario Díaz-Balart said, the group urges their foreign counterparts to think of ways they can help that does not involve sanctions.

Beyond the Eastern Europeans, only a handful of governments like Costa Rica and El Salvador have spoken out. Cuban officials are well-received in many nations and Havana receives dozens of delegations, from Kuwait to China.

Nations like Spain, Brazil and Canada believe publicly attacking the Castro government will only anger it more rather than spur it to give Cubans more freedoms.

Castro essay criticizes U.S. presidential hopefuls

Posted on Thu, Aug. 30, 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.''

Cuban dad's letters were fake, mom says

By Carol Marbin Miller and Tere Figueras Negrete, [email protected] Posted on Fri, Aug. 31, 2007.

For two days, the mother of a 4-year-old girl at the center of a bitter custody dispute told a courtroom how the father repeatedly asked about his daughter's welfare in letters he sent from Cuba to her in the United States.

But in the midst of a relentless cross-examination Thursday, Elena Perez sobbed and then delivered the bombshell that threw an already tense drama into turmoil:

''I tried to twist things around to favor the father,'' she said. "The letters do not exist.''

They were fabricated, Perez said, by Magda Montiel Davis, one of two attorneys for the father, Rafael Izquierdo. Perez said Davis and Izquierdo asked her to say in court that the letters were real and that she had received them while in Houston.

Attorneys for the state Department of Children & Families want the father declared unfit to raise her and the child to remain with the Coral Gables foster family that has taken care of her for 18 months.

Faced with an allegation that she fabricated evidence and asked a witness to commit perjury, Davis adamantly denied she had done anything wrong, as did her husband, Ira Kurzban, who is also representing the father.

''It is an absolute, categorical, unconditional falsehood,'' Davis said.

''This is a sideshow,'' said Kurzban. "The real issue is: Does DCF have a case for taking away a child from her father? . . . The bombshell today is the judge said they had no case.''

Indeed, in court, moments before the trial adjourned for the night, Judge Jeri B. Cohen, who is presiding over the case, rebuked DCF attorneys for the second time this week, saying they had not presented sufficient evidence to show Izquierdo had failed to protect the little girl from harm.

''You haven't shown anything yet,'' the judge said.

Perez, a former pharmacy aide and government worker from Cabaiguán, had been questioned -- by the state attorneys, by a lawyer for the Guardian-ad-Litem Program, and finally by Kurzban -- for about 10 hours over two days. She cried often, and had been led out of the courtroom on Monday after breaking down.

A recurring theme: whether or not Izquierdo had sent cards, letters or birthday presents for the little girl after Perez and the children left Cuba for the United States. On Wednesday, Perez said he had not. Then later, she said he had, but she did not receive them because she had moved around a lot. She also said she had received the letters later but had discarded them in a suitcase.

Finally, under a blistering cross-examination by Kurzban, Perez said she had made the letters up at the request of Davis and Izquierdo.

There were no letters mailed to her in Houston, she said. The letters were fabricated. Perez said the lie didn't really matter, though, because "pieces of paper do not show who he is.''

''He's a good father,'' she said.

Fighting tears, Perez at first said she was at Kurzban's office this month when Izquierdo's attorneys gave her the letters and asked her to testify Izquierdo had written them to her.

A moment later, Perez changed her testimony. She said the meeting occurred at the office of Kurzban's wife, Davis, who practices at a different office. Perez said Kurzban was not in the office when the conspiracy was hatched, only Davis, Izquierdo and herself.

Perez told the judge the meeting occurred ''in the early evening hours,'' and that she did not know exactly where Davis's office is because she was driven there by a cousin.

What was the point of the fabrication? the judge asked.

"For me to say I got these letters in Houston. To help the father of the child. . . . I would do anything for the girl to be with her father.''

''We felt we were not going to be found out,'' Perez added. "I just accepted the idea. . . . We parents will do anything we need to be with our children.''

When Cohen asked why Perez had decided to admit to the lie now, Perez said her lawyer had told her earlier that it was against the law to lie while under oath, "that the name of the crime is perjury, and that it conveyed time in jail.''

The judge then told Perez she was unsure if she was telling the truth.

''It is very serious, if it's true, for his lawyer,'' Cohen added. "Lying to the court is concerning to me. It's concerning to me. I don't know if it's true or not, because you have nothing to gain by it.''

''Really?'' Kurzban blurted out.

''You may bully [DCF], you may bully the guardians, and you may bully other attorneys in the community,'' the judge replied. "In my courtroom you cannot bully me. I have done nothing wrong.''

''Neither have I, your honor,'' Kurzban shot back.

A moment later, Cohen abruptly adjourned and met privately with other lawyers who advised her on how to handle the crisis.

She returned about 20 minutes later and announced that Perez's testimony would continue, and that attorneys with the Florida Bar would decide what to do with the allegations against Davis.

It was not Davis' first brush with notoriety. The Miami lawyer was mired in controversy after she visited Cuba in 1994, and TV cameras captured her kissing Fidel Castro and calling him her teacher.

In the letters she said were fabricated, Perez said Izquierdo mentioned his other daughter's birthday, told of how he had run into Perez's mom in their town in Central Cuba, and that he had heard that her older boy had taken up basketball.

When Kurzban resumed his cross-examination, he asked Perez to describe Davis's office. How many floors? Kurzban asked. Is it a skyscraper? Perez said she couldn't remember. "The only thing I know is there's a garage, a place for the cars.''

Kurzban said his wife's office had no garage.

When did the meeting begin, he asked. ''I don't know exactly. I don't remember,'' she said.

What time did it end? ''I don't remember when it was over,'' she said.

Izquierdo told reporters after the hearing that the letters are legitimate.

''Of course that letter was written by me,'' he said, "and even more letters.''

Izquierdo did write one letter on March 18, 2006 -- after Perez had returned to Miami and lost her children to the state -- that Perez did not dispute Thursday. It leaves unclear whether Perez had received any letters before that.

''Don't think that we've been remiss in not writing you, the problem is that we didn't have your address,'' Izquierdo wrote. "We wrote to you one time in Texas, but it was around the date that you moved to Miami. The thing that interested us the most was to have contact with you, although that has not been possible.''

Cuban prison uprising case encourages death penalty opponents

By Anita Snow, Associated Press. Posted on Thu, Aug. 30, 2007.

HAVANA -- Four men involved in a prison uprising that killed two military officers have been spared the death penalty, an encouraging sign for opponents of capital punishment, a veteran rights activist said Thursday.

''What is relevant to us about this case is that no one was sentenced to death,'' said Elizardo Sánchez of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation. "We hope that this trend continues.''

Sánchez said that relatives of the accused reported that an inmate and an army recruit who was working as a prison guard received life sentences for their involvement in the Dec. 20 uprising at the El Manguito prison just outside the eastern city of Santiago.

He said two other soldiers working as prison guards received 30-year sentences for involvement in the uprising, in which two military officers were shot and killed and an inmate was wounded.

Sánchez said he has only sketchy information about the uprising from relatives of the accused. Cuba's government has released no documents or reports about the uprising or the trial, which reportedly was carried out by a military tribunal in June.

Sánchez's commission is not recognized by the Cuban government but its activities are largely tolerated. Its primary activity is tracking Cuba's political prisoners and issuing twice-yearly reports that are widely used by international rights groups.

''We hope this is a good sign for 50 or so people currently on Death Row'' or who face a possible death sentence, said Sánchez, whose group has long called for the elimination of capital punishment in Cuba.

Those include three other army recruits who were arrested on May 3 after escaping from their base and trying to hijack a plane at gunpoint.

At least one soldier was killed during their escape and an army lieutenant colonel was shot to death during the hijacking attempt.

There have been no reported executions in Cuba since April 2003, when three men convicted of hijacking a Havana passenger ferry with knives and a gun were sent to a firing squad. No one was hurt in the attempt, which came amid a wave of attempted boat and plane hijackings on the island.

The government's swift execution of the three men led to widespread international protests.

Capital punishment in Cuba is always carried out by firing squad. It has been used sparingly in recent years, usually in especially heinous homicides, such as the murder of a child during a rape or in multiple killings.

Mom in Cuban custody case testifies about her rough life

By Carol Marbin Miller, [email protected] Posted on Thu, Aug. 30, 2007.

In Elena Perez's first 48 hours as a U.S. resident in 2004, she was abandoned at Miami International Airport not once but twice: first, by her husband, who went home to ''party'' with relatives, and then by her uncle, who said he wasn't able to care for her and her two small children.

Months later, with a hurricane approaching and no place for Perez to stay, a worker with Catholic Charities took her to Houston, where she knew no one. There, she was attacked by two men, and sank deeper into poverty and depression.

''I had been abandoned. I had been through a total change of life. I was in an unknown place, and I didn't know anybody,'' she told a packed courtroom Wednesday.

Thus began the strange journey of Elena Perez, Cuban pharmacy worker, winner of the U.S. visa lottery in Cuba, mother.

Perez's odyssey has now taken her to the Miami-Dade County courthouse, where she is playing a starring role in a drama that, in many ways, is not about her.

Florida child-welfare lawyers have asked a Miami judge to order that Perez's 4-year-old daughter live permanently with a Coral Gables foster family that has cared for her for 18 months. The girl and her older half-brother went to live with Joe and Maria Cubas after Perez took a kitchen knife to her wrists in December 2005.

Perez is not fighting for custody of her daughter, but the girl's father, Rafael Izquierdo, is. A farmer from Cabaiguán in central Cuba, Izquierdo is battling the Department of Children & Families, which claims he is unfit to raise his daughter.

On Wednesday, DCF attorney Stacey Blume put Perez on the stand to elicit testimony central to the state's case against Izquierdo: He did not send birthday cards to his daughter. He did not call the toddler even once from Cuba. He signed a consent form allowing the girl to live permanently in the United States.

Perez, dressed in a black pinstripe suit, her dark hair hanging loosely at her shoulders, battled tears through much of her four-hour testimony. She described a life punctuated by violence, heartbreak and anguish.

STORIES OF ABUSE

Her father, she said, was a drunk who was abusive to her and to her mother. "One day he married a bottle of rum, and never again did I recover him.''

Her father also ''cut'' her mother and tried to kill her by choking her, Perez said. ''Almost, almost,'' she recalled. "I saved her.''

Perez's first husband, Sandor Sanchez, beat her as well, she said, badly enough that she suffered convulsions and was hospitalized following a blackout.

In May 2004, Perez won a visa lottery allowing her to legally emigrate to the United States. A neighbor, Jesus Melendres, offered to marry her so she could qualify under a program that limits emigration to people who are married, she said. He made big promises. She believed him.

'He promised, 'Even if you are in Pennsylvania, or any state, I will always be with you.' ''

Instead, she said, when they arrived in Miami, Melendres left Miami International Airport with a gaggle of relatives who hugged and kissed and did not bother to introduce themselves to her.

Perez drove home with a maternal uncle. The very next morning, she said, the uncle "led me by the hand. His wife told me they couldn't take care of me and the children. I wasn't able to speak.''

Her uncle drove her back to the airport and left her, she said.

'BEGGING HIM'

Days later, she turned to the only other man she knew in Miami, her husband. "I was begging him on the phone, please, remember what you told me. I was begging him to come back. He answered he would not. He was partying. His family threw a party for him.''

After spending a disastrous few months in Texas, Perez returned to Miami. In late 2005, she said, she called Izquierdo in Cuba, told him she was falling apart and asked him if he could come to Miami to retrieve his daughter.

Izquierdo told her he would try, she said. But within weeks, DCF had taken her children.

'ALL MY SOUL WANTS'

Blume asked Perez if she wished to reunite with her daughter if Izquierdo regains custody and takes the girl back to Cabaiguán. Perez said the two had discussed sharing custody.

''If, one day, I am able to get better, or recover from where I am now, it would be all my soul wants if I were allowed to kiss and hug my child, and spend some time,'' she said. "Only that.''

DENIES PLOT

Perez denied, under questioning by both Blume and Circuit Judge Jeri B. Cohen, that she had hatched a ''plan'' to take custody of the girl if Izquierdo takes her back to Cuba.

Moments before Perez left the courtroom for the day, Blume asked her if she desired to regain custody of her daughter.

''Yes, I do,'' Perez answered. "But I can't.''

''Why can't you?'' Blume asked.

"Because I don't have the strength.''

Earlier Wednesday, a caseworker from the private foster-care agency Neighbor to Family, Maria Zamora, testified that after the girl was placed in foster care, she arranged phone calls so Izquierdo could talk to his daughter.

She said Izquierdo, who was in Cuba, never asked her what he could do to regain custody of the child.

But under cross-examination by Izquierdo's lawyer, Ira Kurzban, Zamora acknowledged it was not her job to help him seek custody of his daughter. ''I was told I was not to discuss the case with Mr. Izquierdo,'' she said. "I was to facilitate calls between him and the child.''

Four in Cuba jail break sentenced

By Wilfredo Cancio Isla, El Nuevo Herald. Posted on Thu, Aug. 30, 2007.

Four participants in a prison revolt in Santiago, Cuba that left two military officers dead have been given sentences of 30 years to life, a human rights activist in Havana reported.

Army recruit Yoelvis Delgado Arvelo, who was working as a guard, and an inmate known only as Mursuli were given life sentences, said Elizardo Sánchez, head of the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation, an illegal but tolerated dissident group.

Army recruit Irán Cabrera León and another soldier who was not identified -- both also guards -- were sentenced to 30 years of imprisonment, Sánchez told El Nuevo Herald on Tuesday.

The sentences were imposed by an army tribunal in June but were disclosed only this week, Sánchez added. Cuban media have not reported the sentences.

The prison break allegedly took place Dec. 20, 2006, when three recruits on compulsory military service and one prison inmate tried to take over El Manguito Prison, 17 miles from Santiago.

Details are sketchy, but Cubans on the island have said that the armed recruits seized the sentry post at the prison's gate, cut off telephone lines and tried to flee with two prison inmates after a shootout in which two military officers were killed and one of the inmates was wounded. The slain men were Lt. Oliverio Orozco and 2nd Lt. José A. Tamayo, according to the sources.

The three recruits and the other inmate were believed to have been captured within 24 hours and taken to Boniatico Prison near Santiago.

Cuban authorities still have not revealed the fate of three other army recruits who on May 3 attempted to hijack a plane at José Martí International Airport in Havana, an incident in which an army lieutenant colonel was killed. Cuban authorities have said the would-be hijackers shot the officer to death.

The recruits are believed to be in a military prison.

Misfit was born in Ohio, executed in Cuba

Biography of William Morgan tracks his life from high school dropout to gun runner to Cuban rebel.

Don Bohning, The Miami Herald. August 26, 2007.

THE AMERICANO: Fighting with Castro for Cuba's Freedom.
Aran Shetterly. Algonquin. 320 Pages. $24.95.

Aran Shetterly has brought William Morgan to life, warts and all, in this well-researched and highly readable account of an Ohio-born American who made his way to Cuba in early 1958 to join the rebels fighting to bring down the government of Fulgencio Batista. The venture cost Morgan his U.S. citizenship and his life during the little more than three years he spent on the island, but not before he made a mark on Cuban history as a hero to some and a traitor to others.

The Americano is also an account of Fidel Castro's rise to, and consolidation of, dictatorial power over Cuba against all odds, aided by several rebel groups supporting, but operating independently of, Fidel's 26th of July Movement.

Weaving in a bit of Cuba's history of the period, Shetterly deftly spins a tale of adventure, intrigue and even love on the run, as Morgan -- who abandoned a wife and two children in Ohio -- finds a bride among the anti-Batista rebels in the Escambray Mountains of Central Cuba.

At the same time, the author manages to shed additional light on the schisms among the rebels fighting Batista, particularly between those following Castro in the eastern Sierra Maestra and those in the center loyal to Eloy Gutierrez Menoyo, leader of what was to become the Second National Front of the Escambray (SNFE), to which Morgan belonged.

Particularly noteworthy is an account of efforts beginning in late spring of 1958 to find unity among the rebel groups, a unity that reflects Castro's desire to be first among equals, a hope he was eventually to achieve. As Shetterly describes it, later that summer, Castro designated Ernesto "Che" Guevara "with the task of unifying all the opposition groups, including the SFNE under his, Che's, command." Eventually, Che and Menoyo would reach an "operational pact," but not before creating friction between Che and Morgan, along with two others under Menoyo's command. That friction could well have been the beginning of the end for Morgan less than two years later.

Morgan would appear an unlikely candidate to become a revolutionary hero. Born into an upper-middle class family in Toledo, he was largely a misfit and outcast during his early years and later court-martialed by the U.S. Army and jailed for three years. When he arrived in the Escambray Mountains in early 1958 at age 29 to join the rebel group, he was overweight and spoke no Spanish, yet rose to the rank of comandante, second only to Menoyo as the SNFE leader and tactician.

Morgan remained a hero after Batista's flight from the country on Jan. 1, 1959, as the onslaught of the rebel groups reached a crescendo, occupying a prominent place in the Castro regime. Increasingly disenchanted with Castro's rule, however, he and others began plotting against the government. On Oct. 21, 1960, Morgan was arrested as he delivered a wedding gift to Juan Almeida, then head of the Cuban Armed Forces. Found guilty by a military tribunal, Morgan was executed March 11, 1961, at the La Cabana prison in Havana, a prison presided over by Che Guevara.

A postscript to this story occurred in April 2007 -- too late for inclusion in the book -- when the U.S. State Department restored his American citizenship, stripped almost a half century earlier. The Americano is a book that both the casual reader and those with an intense interest in Cuba should find readable and informative.

Don Bohning is a former Miami Herald Latin America editor and author of The Castro Obsession: U.S. Covert Operations Against Cuba 1959-1965.

 

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