September 28, 2007

The Miami Herald

Cuban dissidents freed after brief detention

By Frances Robles. September 28, 2007.

Two dozen Cuban dissidents detained in a roundup while trying to reach a protest in Havana have been released, activists said Friday.

Dissidents from Villa Clara and Havana were trying to reach the Justice Ministry in Havana Thursday to present a letter demanding better treatment for political prisoners.

Some 27 dissidents from Villa Clara alone were stopped during the early morning hours on the highway en route or once they arrived at their meeting point, the Havana home of dissident Martha Beatriz Roque.

Roque was also detained and later released. Dissident Jorge Luis ''Antúnez'' García Pérez, released in April after 17 years in prison, was also briefly detained.

''All of those released were let go with the warning that they could be charged at any moment with disturbing the peace,'' opposition journalist Guillermo Fariñas told The Miami Herald by phone from his home in Villa Clara.

Fariñas said the whereabouts of one dissident were still unknown.

The protest followed another small rally Monday in Villa Clara to protest the treatment of Carlos Luis Díaz Fernández, who is currently being held in the El Pre prison in Santa Clara.

''If they are going to mistreat prisoners, we have to protest,'' Fariñas said. "Tomorrow that could be me, and I'd want people protesting for me.''

18 Cuban migrants arrive at gas station

Posted on Fri, Sep. 28, 2007

Eighteen Cuban migrants -- three of them children -- were picked up in the Florida Keys by a trucker and dropped off overnight at a gas station in South Miami-Dade.

The aptly named drop-off point: Freedom Oil Station, Southwest 222nd Street and South Dixie Highway.

All were seen by Miami-Dade Fire Rescue workers and seemed to be doing well. They munched on McDonald's food as they waited for the Border Patrol to take them away for processing. The children dozed.

The migrants said they had departed Cuba from the port of Mariel.

Under the U.S. government's wet foot/dry foot policy, Cuban migrants who make it to U.S. shores are generally allowed to remain in the United States. 

Cuban dad wins ruling but not custody -- yet

By Tere Figueras Negrete, Carol Marbin Miller and Andres Viglucci. September 28, 2007.

A Cuban father fighting to remove his daughter from her Coral Gables foster family is a fit parent, a judge ruled Thursday -- but that doesn't mean the little girl at the center of the international custody dispute will return to the island with him.

Before a courtroom packed with reporters, attorneys, child-welfare advocates and therapists, Circuit Court Judge Jeri B. Cohen said the state failed to make its case that Rafael Izquierdo had neglected or abandoned his daughter.

But Cohen said she will go forward with a second chapter of what has seemed at times a made-for-television courtroom drama: a hearing to decide whether taking the girl from the home of Joe and Maria Cubas, who have cared for her for 19 months, would harm her.

''We're asking you, imploring you, begging you today to transfer the child back to her father,'' said one of Izquierdo's attorneys, Ira Kurzban.

Answered Cohen: "I am not going to return the child to Mr. Izquierdo today.''

Izquierdo and his legal team were nonetheless jubilant as they left the county courthouse Thursday, embracing on the steps before addressing reporters.

''I am eager to be home,'' Izquierdo said. "What I want is to have my daughter with me.''

Asked if there is a possibility he would stay in Miami, he said: "No chance.''

A disconsolate Maria Cubas, who began to cry silently after Cohen read her ruling, bypassed the media scrum outside the courthouse -- leaving with her husband through a back exit.

''Of course we're disappointed,'' Joe Cubas said later Thursday. "But we're looking forward to the second phase of the trial and pray it will protect the child from harm.''

In deciding whether the girl, now 5, will go back to the rural Cuban town where her father and his family lives, Cohen will weigh claims that she has formed bonds with the Cubas family. The judge also will consider whether separating her from her half-brother -- already adopted by the couple -- will cause irreparable harm.

Attorneys for the Department of Children & Families maintain that taking her from the Cubas household constitutes "endangerment.''

Cohen, who has been critical of the department's handling of the case, warned that DCF attorneys will have a tough time proving the endangerment claim at the hearing in October.


The girl and her half-brother, now 13, traveled with their mother, Elena Perez, from Cuba in March 2005. Within a few months, distraught and depressed, Perez attempted suicide.

The children were placed first with relatives of their stepfather, then later at the Cubases' home, where they have lived since April 2006.

The state's attorneys argued that Izquierdo abandoned the girl by allowing her to leave Cuba with her mother and showed little interest in her well-being.

Izquierdo and his attorneys maintain he did not know Perez was mentally unstable and say he was misled by the girl's caregivers in Florida that her mother was on the mend.

In the 47-page ruling, read aloud in a crowded Miami courtroom, Cohen repeatedly criticized Izquierdo, a farmer from the small central Cuban town of Cabaiguán, for being ''passive'' when it came to his child's interests.

She said she was especially disturbed that it took Izquierdo seven months after Perez attempted suicide to apply for a humanitarian visa, which would allow him to come to the United States and claim his child. The judge said Izquierdo could offer no adequate explanation for the time lapse.

''While it is true Izquierdo is not sophisticated and not highly educated, this alone does not explain his inaction,'' Cohen said.

But, she said, "Florida law does not require a father to be a perfect parent, a sophisticated parent nor an assertive parent.''


The ruling capped a weeks-long courtroom saga as dramatic at times as a prime-time telenovela.

On one side are the wealthy Coral Gables couple. Joe Cubas is a former sports agent considered something of an exile hero for helping Cuban baseball players prized by Fidel Castro start Major League careers in the United States.

On the other side has been a man portrayed by his attorneys as a humble farmer caught up in a politically charged custody case who simply wants his daughter.

But Izquierdo's attorneys -- the husband-and-wife legal team of Kurzban and Magda Montiel Davis -- are no strangers to contentious Miami politics. Both have been reviled by many anti-Castro exiles: Kurzban previously represented the Cuban government in commercial litigation; Davis was pilloried in Miami after kissing Castro on the cheek and calling him ''maestro'' during a 1994 trip to the island.

The courtroom spectacle also included allegations by the children's mother that Izquierdo and Davis conspired to fabricate key pieces of evidence and urged her to lie on the witness stand, a bombshell that sidelined the proceedings for several days.

Izquierdo and Davis have vehemently denied Perez's claims.

In her ruling, Cohen addressed the allegations, which centered on letters purportedly sent by Izquierdo to the girl's mother while she was in the United States. The issue of Izquierdo's efforts to keep tabs on the little girl after she left Cuba was a crucial piece of the state's case against him.

Cohen said she had a ''strong suspicion'' that the letters were indeed fabricated, noting Izquierdo wrote about photos that were taken well after the correspondence was supposedly sent. She also described his demeanor under questioning as ''jittery'' and "evasive.''

Cohen said those concerns are outweighed by Izquierdo's devotion to the girl, saying that while she "believes Izquierdo was dishonest with the court on key issues, he appears sincere in wanting to regain custody of his daughter.''

She gave Izquierdo credit for his efforts to claim his daughter, given his 11th-grade education and unfamiliarity with the American legal system.

''He has diligently participated in what must seem to him a mysterious and daunting legal process,'' she wrote in the ruling. "While geographically, Cuba is only 90 miles from the United States shores, the two countries are philosophically and politically worlds apart.''


Alan Mishael, attorney for Joe and Maria Cubas, said the references to Izquierdo's alleged perjury in the ruling constituted a "slap on the wrist.''

The judge ''gave the benefit of the doubt to a man she found had fabricated evidence and lied to her,'' he said.

Mishael said he is confident an appeals court would reverse Cohen's decision.

''We're going to prevail on appeal,'' he said.

Any appeal would have to be filed by DCF attorneys. Gov. Charlie Crist was noncommittal about that prospect late Thursday.

''I think we need to review the ruling, get the rationale behind what the judge determined and have a chance to digest that,'' Crist said. "It's going to take a little time.''

Miami Herald staff writers Evan Benn, Elaine De Valle and Gary Fineout contributed to this report.

Two dozen dissidents rounded up in Havana

By Frances Robles. Posted on Thu, Sep. 27, 2007.

Nearly two dozen dissidents from around Cuba were detained Thursday in Havana when they tried to deliver a letter to the Justice Ministry demanding better treatment for political prisoners, human rights groups said.

Dissident leaders from different provinces throughout the island were believed to have been picked up in Havana on their way to the event, but no police station confirmed their whereabouts, according to Directorio Democratico, a Miami group that monitors human rights in Cuba.

Among the reported missing: dissident Jorge Luis García Pérez, known as Antúnez, who was recently released after serving a 17 year prison sentence. Directorio said a total of 22 people were unaccounted for by late Thursday.

The letter was delivered as planned by activist Martha Beatriz Roque.

Cuban archbishop: Religious freedom slowly spreading on island

By Matt Sedensky, Associated Press Writer. Sep. 24, 2007.

MIAMI -- A top Catholic prelate in Cuba says religious practice is slowly spreading in the communist nation despite rigid restrictions.

Archbishop Dionisio Guillermo Garcia Ibanez, named earlier this year to lead Catholics in Santiago, Cuba's second-largest city, said the church has been able to expand its reach, though it will be years before it achieves goals of even more openness.

"The faith of our community has manifested, it has been reborn," he said in a recent interview during a visit here. "The Catholic faith in our community has resurrected."

Garcia would not pin the loosened restrictions on Fidel Castro's decision to temporarily hand over the government last year to his brother Raul. He said he has witnessed piecemeal improvements since his ordination in 1985.

Catholics once hoped simply to knock on doors and spread the Gospel, Garcia said, a dream that has since been realized. They prayed they could hold religious processions in the streets; he says there have now been more than 90. They pushed for Catholic radio broadcasts, which are now allowed once or twice a year.

"Hope is relative," the 62-year-old archbishop said after a Mass at Ermita de la Caridad, the spiritual heart of Cuban exiles here. "We always need to work toward what we think is necessary, is fair."

Garcia was cautious in his statements and steered away from any criticism of the Cuban government, for which his predecessor, retired Archbishop Pedro Meurice Estiu, became known. One of Garcia's hosts, Bishop Felipe Estevez, said he was encouraged by the changes the archbishop noted, but said Catholics need to understand Cubans are still living in a closed society.

"That is a society that is not pluralistic, it is unidimensional and somehow they have to live with that reality," said Estevez, an auxiliary bishop with the Archbishop of Miami who was born in Havana and came to the U.S. as a teenager. "They are kind of talking out of adversity."

Despite huge expectations, Pope John Paul II's 1998 visit to Cuba never brought the transcendent changes many wanted. The pontiff urged the island to "open to the world" and called for Castro to increase liberty for the church and society.

"Life in Cuba continues without greater transformations," the archbishop acknowledged.

Cuba became officially atheist in the years after the 1959 revolution that brought Castro to power. Although diplomatic relations between the Cuban government and the Vatican remained intact, and religious observance was never outlawed, practicing Catholics and believers of other faiths were often viewed with suspicion or amusement.

The Cuban government removed the constitution's references to atheism more than a decade ago and allowed believers to join the Communist Party. But religious schools have remained closed since the early 1960s, when hundreds of foreign priests and religious workers were expelled. Abortion remains free and readily available.

"We are in that process of finding new roads for presence of the church, of understanding that faith is not only something private," Garcia said. "Many years of experience have to pass for this state to not only accept the beliefs of others, of its citizens, but also to realize that the sincere evidence of the faith signifies a good thing for the country."

Estevez noted no new churches have been built in Cuba in 50 years, that Catholics still have no schools, newspapers or regularly broadcast radio programs.

"If you are Catholic, you cannot study law, you cannot study psychology, or you cannot study political science," he said. "They don't want that thinking in the leadership."

Although John Paul's influence was considered key to the collapse of communism in his native Poland, the church has had much less say in Cuba. Garcia said Catholics on the island don't ask why they haven't followed a similar path.

"Every country, every town has to find their own road to reconciliation," he said. "Every country should find with honesty their own way to find the way for their people. It's not healthy to make comparisons."

Associated Press writers Anita Snow in Havana and Damian Grass in Miami contributed to this report.

Cuban girl's rights to be next decision

By Carol Marbin Miller, Posted on Fri, Sep. 28, 2007.

The weekslong case against Rafael Izquierdo has been mired in the legal intricacies of what makes a father a fit parent and in lawyerly definitions of abandonment and neglect.

Now that a judge has ruled in his favor, a new battle is about to begin over the heart of the case: Does his right as a fit and loving father to raise his daughter trump her right not to be torn from a family she has come to love?

The noisy drama raises the specter of a collision between cherished American principles: the constitutional right of a fit parent to raise his child free of government interference versus the government's right to protect a small child from potential emotional harm.

''We are treading on very dangerous borders of the law,'' said Bernard Perlmutter, a 20-year children's advocate who heads the University of Miami Law School's Children & Youth Law Clinic. "We have to be very careful.''

The case pits Izquierdo, who raises pigs and grows malanga in central Cuba, against foster parents Joe and Maria Cubas, a Cuban-American couple from Coral Gables, in a struggle for custody of a 5-year-old girl they both want to raise.

The Florida Department of Children & Families, together with the girl's court-appointed guardian ad litem, are asking Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jeri B. Cohen to forever strip Izquierdo of custody over his daughter by granting Joe and Maria Cubas permanent guardianship. They say the girl has so completely bonded with her half-brother and foster parents that separating from them now would endanger her emotionally.

''In this case, what it appears the state is seeking to do is create a new jurisprudence that focuses on potential harm to the child,'' Perlmutter said. "It is very novel, and very untested.''

Florida law and the written interpretations of it handed down by appeals courts through the years offer little insight into what Cohen -- who has often lamented in the case that her hands are tied by precedent -- will do.

The state's child-welfare statute says that in a custody dispute, a judge ''shall place'' a child with a fit parent "unless the court finds that such placement would endanger the safety, well-being, or physical, mental or emotional health of the child.''


A landmark 1996 Florida Supreme Court ruling that essentially abolished the notion of grandparents' rights declared that parents have a "fundamental right under [the] State Constitution to raise their children, except where [the] child is threatened with harm.''

That standard allowed the First District Court of Appeal in November 2002 to let a Bay County grandmother continue raising an 8-year-old boy, even though his mother had complied with all the requirements of a parental improvement plan and wanted custody. The court said the child could be harmed because the mother showed no interest in learning how to care for his developmental disabilities, while the grandmother had been dealing with them for years.

Alan Mishael, attorney for Joe and Maria Cubas, will rely on cases such as that one and emphasize the state's right to protect a child from imminent harm.

But Ira Kurzban, Izquierdo's attorney, says that an even higher authority prohibits the state from keeping a child from a fit and loving parent: the U.S. Constitution.

''We believe the U.S. Constitution, [and] the Florida Constitution say that parents have a God-given right to raise their children,'' said Kurzban. "Mr. Izquierdo has been found fit. . . . He has a right to not go through another proceeding.''

Bruce A. Boyer, a law professor who heads Loyola University's children's law clinic in Chicago, called ''really, really scary'' the notion that a fit parent can be deprived of his child. "Before a state can interfere with the relationship between a parent and child, it has to first establish that something has gone wrong.''


Advocates for carving out a robust framework of children's rights ''are trying to drive a wedge in the long-standing case law that derives from decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court that makes a parent's interest -- a fit parent's interest -- ultimate in the determination of custody,'' UM's Perlmutter said.

If Kurzban fails to sidetrack the inquiry, Cohen will convene a new hearing almost unprecedented in Miami's child-welfare history to decide whether moving the little girl from the Cubas home will cause her great harm.

Florida lawmakers never defined ''endangerment'' in the state's child-welfare statute. But, Perlmutter says, "I think the term was deliberately chosen by the Legislature to make the threshold very high.''

Judge Cohen agrees. She told the state Thursday: "You are going to have a steep mountain to climb, and you know that.''

The legal intricacies almost certainly will make the new hearing a battle of experts. Those supporting the Cubas family will try to show that the girl is far too attached to both her 13-year-old half-brother and her foster parents to risk uprooting her. Those for Izquierdo will say that small children are resilient, and that the girl already is forging a new bond with her birth dad.

Barbara Bennett Woodhouse, a law professor at the University of Florida who is completing a book on children's rights, said Florida has traditionally lagged behind other states in creating a foundation for protecting the rights of children.

That's changing, though, Woodhouse said. She said a ruling in favor of the Cubas family could help propel Florida closer to other states that emphasize children's interests over birth parents' rights.

''When there is a serious detriment to the child, that should be taken into account,'' Woodhouse said. "You can't treat a child like a piece of property. . . . Let's not just look at blood. Let's look at actions, conduct.''

In the 5-year-old's case, Woodhouse said, the judge must consider: "Is the child so bonded [with her foster family] that she really doesn't have a relationship with the person claiming parenthood?''

Roey Kirk, a Miami healthcare consultant and adoptive mother who is on the board of directors of Hear My Voice, an advocacy group that supports prospective adoptive families and longtime caregivers, said she has faith that Cohen, and the state courts, ultimately will do what is best for the little girl, who has seen enough tragedy.

''Every time a bond is broken, it affects the child,'' Kirk said. "What we would like to see everyone do is focus all their energy and love on creating an environment for this child so that she doesn't have to suffer any more loss.''


Izquierdo's legal team will present evidence that it's far from certain the girl will be harmed by reunification with her father's family in Cuba.

''For every medical or quasi-medical professional who says the disruption will cause permanent brain damage, there are equally credible people who say children are flexible, go through trauma all the time, and recover,'' said Boyer, the Loyola professor.

''I'm not saying children are not affected, or traumatized,'' Boyer added. But the case raises the specter of "giving judges unfettered power to decide that a child is better off being raised by some other family. A judge could simply decide a child would be happier in a nice house in the suburbs, with a swing set and a puppy -- and maybe better schools.''

"That's never, ever a reason to take a child away from a fit parent because you think they will be better off somewhere else.''

Cuban official assails Bush

By Edith M. Lederer, Associated Press Writer. Sep. 26, 2007.

UNITED NATIONS -- Cuba's foreign minister launched a blistering attack on President Bush at a U.N. General Assembly meeting Wednesday, a day after the U.S. leader spoke of a Cuba no longer ruled by Fidel Castro.

Felipe Perez Roque told world leaders that Bush "came into office through fraud and deceit" and has "no moral authority or credibility to judge anyone." He also accused the American leader of authorizing the torture of prisoners at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay.

On Tuesday, Bush looked ahead to a Cuba without Castro, who hasn't been seen in public since undergoing emergency intestinal surgery last year.

"In Cuba, the long rule of a cruel dictator is nearing its end," Bush said. "The Cuban people are ready for their freedom."

He also urged "every civilized nation ... to stand up for the people suffering under dictatorship," singling out "brutal regimes" in Belarus, North Korea, Syria, Iran, Myanmar, Cuba, Zimbabwe and Sudan.

The Cuban delegation walked out of the General Assembly hall Tuesday to protest Bush's remarks. During Perez Roque's attack on Wednesday, the U.S. seat was empty.

The U.S. Mission to the United Nations said the Cuban comments reflect a tragedy. "We find it tragic that the people of Cuba and Zimbabwe cannot enjoy the same freedom to speak out that their own leaders take at the podum of the General Assembly in denouncing other countries," said mission spokesman Benjamin Chang.

In his comments, Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe - whose government is frequently criticized by Western nations for alleged human rights abuses - claimed that the U.S. leader "imprisons and tortures in Guantanamo, he imprisons and tortures at Abu Ghraib, he has secret torture centers in Europe."

Perez Roque accused Bush of winning his office through fraud. "We would have been spared his presence yesterday, and we would have listened to President Al Gore talking about climate change and the risks to our species."

Perez Roque, who spoke on behalf of the 118-nation Nonaligned Movement, said Bush's comments forced him to respond.

"It was an embarrassing show," he said. "The delirium tremens of the world's policeman, sprinkled with the mediocrity and the cynicism of those who threaten to launch wars in which they know their life is not at stake."

In his speech, Bush also saluted nations "that have recently take strides toward liberty, including Ukraine, Georgia, Liberia and Sierra Leone. He said the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted 60 years ago, "must guide our work in the world."

Referring to these comments, Perez Roque said, "He talked about human rights, but we know that he is lying."

"He has been the most selfish and reckless politician that we have ever seen," he said. "President Bush has no moral authority or credibility to judge anyone."

Associated Press writers Slobodan Lekic and Sarah DiLorenzo contributed to this report.

Photo shows heavier-looking Fidel Castro standing, meeting with Angolan president

By Will Weissert, Associated Press Writer. Posted on Sun, Sep. 23, 2007.

HAVANA -- Cuba published a photo Sunday of a standing, smiling Fidel Castro looking heavier but still gaunt as he met with Angola's president, the first head of state to see the ailing 81-year-old since June.

The picture, which appeared on the front page of Communist Party youth newspaper Juventud Rebelde, shows Castro in a track suit, athletic pants and tennis shoes. The Cuban leader appears to have gained weight and wears a warm half-smile as he shakes hands with Angolan President Jose Eduardo Dos Santos, who was in Cuba since Thursday on an official visit.

The image was released two days after Castro gave a surprise hourlong interview on state television, during which he answered rumors about his death that have swirled recently in the United States by saying simply, "well, here I am."

Sunday's photo was the first time Castro has been seen standing in months. He stayed seated during the interview, which aired Friday evening just hours after officials said it was taped.

Held in an undisclosed location, the meeting between Castro and Dos Santos reportedly took place Saturday afternoon and lasted an hour and 45 minutes.

"I could see him recuperating," Dos Santos told Cuba's state news agency, Prensa Latina. "He's strong, with good enthusiasm."

Castro has not appeared in public since announcing on July 31, 2006, that emergency intestinal surgery was forcing him to step down in favor of a provisional government headed by his 76-year-old brother, Raul.

The younger Castro addressed reporters Sunday on a tarmac in the province of Matanzas after seeing Dos Santos board a flight off the island. "There is a magnificent photo on the front page" of Juventud Rebelde, he said.

In an interview broadcast Sunday night, Castro's friend and ally Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said that "Fidel isn't dying."

"Fidel is fine," said Chavez, who when asked about Castro's condition described it as intestinal problem and said "it isn't terminal."

Chavez said he has talked to the Cuban leader frequently by phone.

"The last time I talked with him personally, we talked six hours," Chavez said in the taped interview, which was conducted last week in Manaus, Brazil.

Fidel's condition and exact illness are state secrets, and before Friday it had been more than three months since Cuba's government released images showing his recovery - prompting rumors in Miami and elsewhere that he had died.

Dos Santos is the first head of state to visit with the elder Castro since June 12, when Chavez made a surprise visit to Havana.

Cuba and Angola have had close relations for more than three decades. The Caribbean nation sent as many as 350,000 military and technical personnel between 1975 and 1988 to help the Angolan government and the Namibian Liberation Movement defeat U.S.-supported rebels and South African troops.


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