September 11 , 2007

The Miami Herald

Cuban dad asked in court about sex life

Birthday cards, presents and a father's sex life: A Cuban father spends his third day on the witness stand fielding questions about his relationships.

By Carol Marbin Miller, [email protected] September 11, 2007.

On the third day of his testimony, Rafael Izquierdo got grilled Monday on his sex life.

On the witness stand for more than 20 hours over three days, Izquierdo was asked Monday to name all the women with whom he had ever been ''intimate.'' A malanga and pig farmer from Cabaiguan in Central Cuba, Izquierdo is in a downtown Miami courtroom seeking custody of his 5-year-old daughter.

Opposing him is the Florida Department of Children & Families and the Guardian-ad-Litem Program in Miami. Attorneys for the agencies say Izquierdo is unfit to raise the girl because, among other things, he allowed her to emigrate to the United States with a mother he knew was emotionally unstable.

Attorneys for DCF and the guardian program are asking a Miami judge to order that the 5-year-old remain permanently in the home of Joe and Maria Cubas, the Coral Gables couple who have cared for her the past 18 months. The little girl celebrated her fifth birthday this weekend at the Cubas home.

During questioning by Shelby Tsai, an attorney with the law firm Hogan & Hartson who is representing the guardian program, Izquierdo was peppered with queries about the women with whom he married or had been intimate with in Cuba.

Izquierdo said he considered himself married to both Elena Perez, the 5-year-old's mother, and Yanara Alvarez, the mother of his 7-year-old daughter, with whom he now lives. He said he also had a marriage-like relationship with another woman.

''You had at least three intimate relationship?'' Tsai asked.

''Yes. Married like that. Yes,'' Izquierdo replied.

''Apart from [the three], have you had intimate relationships with any other women?'' Tsai asked.

''That I remember, I have not had any other intimate relationships,'' Izquierdo answered.

When Tsai persisted, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jeri B. Cohen interrupted.

''Is there a point to this?'' the judge asked.

''Impeachment, your honor,'' Tsai said.

''If he went out with other women and had sex with them, I don't care,'' the judge said.

The morning began with Tsai questioning Izquierdo about efforts he made to keep in touch with the little girl after she left Cuba for Miami in March 2006. Attorneys for the state say Izquierdo cared so little about his daughter that he failed to send birthday cards, letters or presents.

''You've recorded cassettes of your singing, yet you never sent a single one of those tapes to [your daughter], did you?,'' Tsai asked, noting that Izquierdo had testified he liked to sing.

''Never,'' the father said.

''You could have told a good night story, and put that on tape, couldn't you?'' Tsai asked.

"Yes. It's true that I did not send them.''

''Didn't you want [her] to hear your voice more?'' Tsai continued.

''I wanted my daughter to know everything,'' Izquierdo said. "But the idea did not occur to me.''

When Tsai asked Izquierdo why he never called the girl after he came to Miami in May, she ran afoul of the judge.

''I think that's an extremely unfair question,'' Cohen said. "If he had called on his own, you would have been screaming.''

Both DCF and the guardian program have sought repeatedly, the judge said, to limit Izquierdo's court-approved visits with his daughter. Several of the visits have generated controversy in court.

''He can answer the question,'' the judge said, 'but I think this is a case of 'You're darned if you do, and darned if you don't.' ''

Cuban dad breaks down in custody case

By Carol Marbin Miller, [email protected] Posted on Tue, Sep. 11, 2007

Rafael Izquierdo, the Cuban farmer at the center of an international custody dispute over a 5-year-old girl, left the witness stand Tuesday morning after about 25 hours of testimony -- but not before rendering a tearful plea to take his daughter home.

Under an emotional interrogation by Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jeri B. Cohen, who is presiding over the trial, the Cuban father broke down in tears, wiping his face with a blue handkerchief and hanging his head in his hands.

The drama began when Cohen accused the father of offering testimony she found untruthful. She said the father's ''lies'' were not enough to strip him of custody of his daughter, but his testimony did bother her.

''Sir, I have to tell you, I've found a lot of your testimony evasive and dishonest. I've watched you, and I've heard you,'' Cohen said. "It doesn't mean you are a bad guy. It doesn't mean I don't believe other parts of your testimony. It doesn't mean you don't love [your daughter].

"But I've got to tell you: I've watched your testimony, and I've found some of your testimony evasive.''

''I am honest and sincere,'' Izquierdo said, becoming visibly emotional, his hands gesturing broadly.

''I am asking you to not decide on that,'' Izquierdo said. "If I was not a competent father, I would not have come [from Cuba]. I would not be standing here. We are a very humble family. A family of working people. I love my daughter. I love her very much.''

At that, Izquierdo's face turned red, and the questioning stopped for a few minutes as he regained his composure, and apologized for breaking down.

''You have nothing to apologize for, and you don't have to be embarrassed about crying,'' the judge said, leaning closer to the witness box. "But I needed these answers from you.''

''I hope you don't feel I've ganged up on you,'' the judge said.

Izquierdo, a pig and malanga farmer from the central Cuban village of Cabaiguan, has been in Miami since May seeking to regain custody of his daughter, who turned 5 last weekend.

The Florida Department of Children & Families and the Guardian-ad-Litem program in Miami, which is advocating for the girl, are asking Cohen to order that Izquierdo permanently lose custody of the girl. They say he essentially abandoned the girl by allowing her to emigrate to the United States with a mother he knew was mentally ill.

Lawyers for the state want Cohen to order that the girl remain permanently with Joe and Maria Cubas, a Cuban-American family in Coral Gables that has been caring for the girl the last 18 months.

Izquierdo had been on the witness stand since Friday, being questioned first by a lawyer for DCF, then an attorney for the guardian's office and, finally, by Cohen. He took the stand after the girl's mother, Elena Perez, had been on the witness stand for four days, creating controversy with allegations that Izquierdo and his legal team had concocted evidence and encouraged her to lie.

Both Izquierdo's attorneys, Ira Kurzban and Magda Montiel Davis, have strenuously denied the charges. Berta Rodriguez, a private therapist who has worked with the girl, was next to testify Tuesday, and DCF attorneys say they will call Perez's lawyer, Greer Wallace Davis, to testify later Tuesday.

Cuban girl's mother is pressed: Why the lies?

On her last day on the witness stand, the mother at the center of a custody dispute talked once again about her lies and her life.

By Carol Marbin Miller, [email protected] Posted on Thu, Sep. 06, 2007

Testimony in the international custody trial involving a 4-year-old Cuban girl shifted Wednesday from a discussion over when the girl's mother lied in court to an examination of why.

On the witness stand for the fourth day, Elena Perez again acknowledged that she lied numerous times in her testimony over the fitness of her one-time lover, Rafael Izquierdo, to raise the little girl at the center of the dispute. State child-welfare lawyers claim Izquierdo is an unfit parent and should lose his right to raise his daughter.

The state Department of Children & Families wants the girl to remain with Joe and Maria Cubas, a Cuban-American family in Coral Gables that has been raising the girl the past 18 months.

Attorneys for Izquierdo attempted to show that Perez has a motive for saying Izquierdo and his legal team fabricated evidence and falsified testimony -- claims Perez made last week that rocked an already tense trial. Perez's accusations have been leveled mostly at attorney Magda Montiel Davis.

''You were jealous of Magda because, unlike you, she had a husband, children, grandchildren and a house to live in, correct?'' lawyer Steve Weinger asked during cross-examination, referring to a visit Perez made to the home Davis shares with her husband, Ira Kurzban, another attorney for Izquierdo.

''Never. No, never,'' Perez replied.

''You resented Magda Davis because you felt she could have helped you before?'' asked Weinger, noting that Davis had given Perez help with rent and food.

''She could have done it last year. I fought tirelessly, struggled tirelessly to keep not only my daughter, but both of them,'' Perez answered, referring to both the 4-year-old and the girl's older half-brother, who has since been adopted by the Coral Gables foster family seeking to raise both siblings.

''You blame Magda Montiel for losing your children, correct?'' Weinger asked.

''I blame everybody,'' Perez replied.

''You lie to be spiteful sometimes, correct?'' Weinger asked.

''I lie out of necessity,'' Perez said, a moment later. "I don't lie out of spite. I lie out of necessity. Just to help the father of my daughter. There is no spite. There is hurt.''

An attorney for the Guardian ad Litem Program then quizzed Perez on the provenance of a series of photos that Perez said she sent to Izquierdo -- and then said she didn't send. Wednesday, once again, Perez said she did send some of the photos to Izquierdo in Cuba.

Following a brief recess, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jeri B. Cohen announced that social workers had found an apartment at Lotus House, a sanctuary for homeless women, for Perez. During her lengthy testimony Tuesday, Perez mentioned that she was living with one of Davis' secretaries.

Perez's living arrangement prompted concern from attorneys for both the DCF and the Guardian ad Litem Program. They said they were unaware Perez was staying with an employee of the opposing counsel.

Perez had been staying with Davis' secretary since Friday, the same day Cohen said she was concerned about Perez's apparently shaky mental state. The judge was not aware that Perez, who had been living in a rented efficiency, was staying with Davis' secretary.

Late in Wednesday's session, Perez told the judge she wanted to say something. What followed was a half-hour monologue that began with: "It has to do with my life, since I was born.''

Perez recounted many years of struggle, beginning with the physical abuse she said she endured at the hands of her father in childhood, and ending with her decision to leave Cuba with her two children in search of a better life. Much of the narrative was not new; Perez had described the miseries of her life last week.

Some of the story included fresh details, however, including descriptions of beatings she received from a brother -- ''he beat me to a pulp'' one night, she said -- and the story of how Perez had moved to a neighboring town to escape such abuse, only to end up a prostitute.

''I left,'' she said. "I went out of town for two months to a place where I sold my body.''

When Perez was through, Cohen leaned closer to her.

''Elena,'' the judge said, "I'm very sorry. Nobody should have to live the life you have lived. Nobody. There is nothing you did to deserve it. I know you are suffering and in a lot of pain.

''You got dealt a very difficult hand in life,'' Cohen continued. "There is no rhyme or reason for it. I'm so sorry . . . I don't believe your spirit is completely destroyed.''

Miami Herald staff writer Tere Figueras Negrete contributed to this report.

For Dad's neighbors, dispute not complicated

Neighbors of Rafael Izquierdo in Cuba say his 4-year-old daughter, caught in a custody dispute in Miami, should live with him in their town.

By Miami Herald Staff, [email protected] Posted on Sat, Sep. 08, 2007

CABAIGUAN, Cuba -- At the end of a tree-lined dirt road and around the corner from a playground with a small Ferris wheel sits a modest single-story home with whitewashed walls and a polished cement floor.

The house is where Rafael Izquierdo -- the man battling for custody of his 4-year-old daughter in a Miami courtroom -- lives with his wife, sister and mother. It's where he says he has readied a room for his daughter, and where the little girl may grow up if Florida child-welfare lawyers fail to convince a judge that Izquierdo is an unfit parent.

In the dead center of Cuba, Cabaiguán lies about 250 miles southeast of Havana. With a population between 30,000 and 50,000, the town is surrounded by government-owned ranches and farmland. As in many rural towns on this island, bicycles outnumber cars.

As lawyers battle in court, villagers here struggle to understand how custody could even be an issue.

''If the mother can't handle the child and here's the father -- who is decent, honest and hard-working -- this is where the child belongs,'' said a neighbor who knows Izquierdo from working with him in the fields. "If it wasn't for politics, the child would be back here in two minutes.''

Attorneys for the Florida Department of Children & Families argue that Izquierdo, 32, is unfit because he allowed the girl's mother, Elena Pérez, to take the child to the United States despite knowing that Pérez was emotionally unstable and abusive. When Pérez tried to kill herself in December 2005, the girl and her half-brother were taken into state custody and now live with Joe and Maria Cubas, a well-to-do couple in Coral Gables.

But people here who know Rafael Izquierdo -- and who are largely unaware of the heated case unfolding in Miami -- described him as a caring father and a hard worker who divided his time between working in potato and malanga fields and fishing for bass in the nearby Zaza reservoir.

''He used to come by all the time and bring [the child] things,'' said a woman who lived near the one-room house that Pérez shared with her children before taking them to the United States. "Nobody can say he wasn't a good father.''

Izquierdo's family in Cabaiguán refuses to talk to the press and discourages journalists from lingering in the community. During a recent visit to the town, a woman who identified herself as his sister challenged the status of a reporter's travel documents before shooing the writer out.

Despite the flood of press the case has generated in South Florida, people in this town, far off the tourist trail, appeared to have only the vaguest notion about the battle in a Miami courtroom.

There are no T-shirts here emblazoned with the little girl's face. People are not marching down the Havana Malecón demanding her return. Unlike in the case of Elián González, the little boy whose custody case in 2000 gripped South Florida for seven months, the Cuban government has not created a website about her, and the state-controlled media has not covered her case.

''This isn't like it was with Elián,'' said one neighbor. "The only reason we know about it is because Rafael is our neighbor.''

Speculation as to why the Cuban government has stayed on the sidelines this time runs the gamut. Cuba watchers said the government may be concerned that Izquierdo will decide to stay in the United States with his daughter. Others think it may be a reflection of interim leader Raúl Castro's low-key management style.

Some experts suggest Raúl is concerned about antagonizing Washington during such a critical moment for the Cuban revolution.

''Raúl is not the showman that Fidel was,'' said Bernardo Benes, a Cuban-American activist who met with Fidel regularly in the 1970s and '80s. "That could certainly be a factor.''

Despite the differences in the two custody cases, back in Cabaiguán, neighbors said the core lessons of the Elián saga also apply now.

''Politics should never get in the way of family,'' one neighbor said. "Blood ties are sacred.''

The Miami Herald has withheld the name of the correspondent who wrote this dispatch because the reporter lacked the required Cuban visa to work on the island.

Senate restores aid to Cuban opposition

By Pablo Bachelet, [email protected] Posted on Fri, Sep. 07, 2007

WASHINGTON -- The Senate agreed Thursday to restore President Bush's requested $47 million funding for Cuban opposition groups in a foreign operations spending bill.

Until now, the Senate had not made any pronouncements on Cuba policy. With the House and Senate in agreement on the levels of dissident aid for Cuba, the increase in funding is almost certain to become law.

Earlier this year, senators in charge of appropriations cut the aid to $15 million, only a modest improvement from the $10 million a year Cuba democracy programs got in the past.

The Senate approved an amendment to increase the funding by unanimous consent.

It was presented by Florida Republican Sen. Mel Martinez and co-sponsored by Republican Sen. John Ensign of Nevada and Democratic Sens. Bob Menendez of New Jersey and Bill Nelson of Florida.

The increase is the latest setback for opponents of U.S. policy toward Cuba, who argue that the aid is ineffective in bringing democracy to the island and that more engagement with the Castro government stands a better chance of producing democratic changes.

The House defeated a similar measure before the summer recess in a sign that Democrats in control of Congress were not eager to change U.S. policy toward Cuba as Cuban-American lawmakers and their allies stepped up their lobbying efforts.

Menendez, speaking on the Senate floor, said Cuba's democracy activists deserved more support as their work was ''powerful and meaningful.'' He cited a rise of ''civil resistance'' actions in Cuba as evidence that groups there were more active.

Democrat Chris Dodd would end Cuba embargo if elected president

By Jessica Gresko, Associated Press Writer. Posted on Sat, Sep. 08, 2007.

CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- Democrat Christopher Dodd pledged Saturday that as president he would end a decades-old trade embargo with Cuba and lift travel restrictions to the communist island.

The Connecticut senator also said he would open an embassy in Havana and shut down the 17-year-old TV Marti, a U.S. government-run station that broadcasts to Cuba.

"Other than the war in Iraq, no other American policy is more broadly unpopular internationally," Dodd said of American policy toward Cuba.

Dodd called the policy an "abject failure." As president, he said he would seek a repeal of the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which strengthened the U.S. embargo against Cuba. He also said taxpayers should not spend millions of dollars annually on TV Marti, which virtually no one in Cuba sees, and that he would reform its companion, Radio Marti.

The senator, who trails better known rivals in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, said he would work to establish U.S. mail service to Cuba. He added he would make staying in touch with family on the island easier for Cuban-Americans, by allowing U.S. companies to lower prices for phone calls there.

Dodd answered several questions in the Spanish, a language he honed while serving in the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic. He said he has faith in the Cuban community, and in their willingness to take a look at his policy, though Cuban-Americans generally oppose any lifting of the trade embargo.

Dodd sidestepped a question on whether he would meet leaders like Cuba's Fidel Castro and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez if elected.

"Presidents don't run around and meet with people automatically," Dodd said, without directly answering the question.

Meeting with leaders without preconditions is an issue Dodd's fellow Democratic candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton have sparred over. Dodd said of his opponents' answers: "One was far too rigid and one was far too simplistic."

Alfredo Mesa, a spokesman for the Cuban American National Foundation, a Miami-based political lobby, said he wasn't surprised Dodd wanted to repeal the embargo with Cuba, something he said Dodd has been "consistently wrong" about. Mesa said the foundation would also disagree with shutting down TV Marti. But Mesa added the foundation does support facilitating communication between Cuban-Americans and their families in Cuba.

Alberto Mascaro, chief of staff for the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, which oversees TV and Radio Marti, said he had no comment on Dodd's announcement Saturday.

Dodd was in Florida for a Democratic debate Sunday sponsored by the Spanish-language Univision Network at the University of Miami. Because only Dodd and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson are fluent in Spanish, questions will be translated into English for the candidates.

Dodd joked it's a shame the debate won't be entirely in Spanish.


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