by Katie Mustard
I went to Cuba because I was curious; because Id read so much about it; because it is forbidden; because so many people have championed it while so many others have abandoned it; because Cubans make great music and aromatic cigars; because Ive never been to a Communist country; because I wanted to learn the salsa; and because of its alluring mystique.
Beside the fact that it is vaguely illegal, going to Cuba as an American for a short stretch poses no problem. My travel companion, Amy, and I were whisked quickly through immigration and warmly greeted to a gauntlet of jineteros: Cambio? Taxi? Casa Particular? Being the savvy backpackers that we are, Amy and I ignored the hoots and hollers and even snapped the occasional cambio tu fucking madre at the overly persistent hustler. Nonetheless, we fell to the mercy of being the trapped tourist 15 miles outside the city and ended up paying a hefty $20 fee to Habana Central.
Oh HAVANA: the magnificent, vibrant, beautiful and crumbling capital of Cuba. My feelings for the city can best be compared to those of a mistress for her lover: happiness and sadness, admiration and frustration, passion and paranoia, sensitivity and revulsion. What's more, I do not believe there is a foreigner who could walk the streets of Havana without feeling afraid, without sensing something special, without feeling the music which forms the backbone of the society, and without realizing he or she is in a country clutched between the past and the future. After spending only a few hours in Havana, I become conscious of an unfortunate truth: it is the very ills of the society which draw the flocks of tourists; and thus my combating feelings commenced.
While Miami is closer to Havana than it is to Orlando, Cuba can feel as exotic as China. It is a place out of time, the least "Westernized" country in the hemisphere, and its allures are countless: classic American antique cars that somehow still rumble along the cobblestone roads; colonial style mansions with colorful shutters, faded pillars and torn up yards complete with playing kids and mangy dogs, grand 20s style cabaret halls packed with eager-to-please dancing women; horse and buggies that out number the bicycle taxis and old Soviet war-time motorcycles with side carts; and the most captivating attraction, is the sight of the hundreds of Cubans who pass the day in the street - displaying their profession of manicurist, hair cutter, tire-repair-man, lighter-fluid-filler, and cucumber-seller for all the gawking tourists to photograph More specifically, my initial observations sounded like those such as: Look, Amy, its a homemade cargo trailer that holds the entire family, how clever or Look at the toilet paper and the coat hanger displayed in the window, isnt that odd and Holy shit, did you just see that old lady get booted off the overflowing bus of people. And of course, the recurring, I just cant believe it, 200 people waiting in line for ice cream, and they only have vanilla?? Needless to say, the more I noticed all the lucky leftovers of a colonial past, the more the novelty images became sad symbols of a Communist present in serious need of repair, repainting, replastering, replumbing and rebuilding. Yet, despite all the economic hardships, Havana proudly wears its Caribbean colors; a tropical rainbow reflected in smiles, flowers and (when its available) ice cream.
More remarkably, the city continually fabricates a boundary-free backdrop between the home and the street, and all doors are left wide open for on-lookers and out-lookers alike to converse. I easily adapted to the warmth and openness there. In Cuba I could be passive, tentative, and still be taken in, brought close to people and situations, for it is a place that is about people and intimacy. I suppose it is because they have nothing to lose, because they know what cannot be taken away. They have been through and are going through something together, as a people, one nation under Fidel. So it is of no surprise that, effortlessly, Amy and I found ourselves in several Cuban homes for several home made dinners with several new friends.
However, it was not until the day we attempted to depart Havana on the government run bus system that our real Cuban experience began. What do you mean there is no bus to Batabano?!? We were here just yesterday and reserved seats? These types of questions would soon prove to be silly as we learned the reality of public transportation And so, illegal taxi rides became our most frequent mode of travel, and oh how one cannot deny the exhilaration of racing down 200 kilometers of potholes at 95 miles per hour while the doors rattle off and the hole in the floor widens. Luckily, Amy and I arrived in Batabano just in time to wait 5 hours for a 4-hour ferry ride and a 30-minute walk to our final destination on the Isle de la Juventud or The Island of Youth.
Not necessarily by choice, Amy and I spent 3 days on the attractive island. The change of pace was extremely refreshing - the unhurried way of life gave us the opportunity to truly enjoy the Cuban people and their habitats. Mangroves lined the bustling center road through town. Hundreds of small, beautiful, and completely dilapidated houses stacked along side each other down narrow seafront streets. Prime real estate in any other universe, the houses displayed paint 40 years weathered, worn to breathtaking pastels of blue, violet, pink and grey. Although, the Isle de la Juventud is the least populated region of Cuba, the streets constantly jangle with bicycles and horseshoes hitting the pavement. Blackouts are regular, and the dirt roads at night are so dark that when a car appears, its headlights are blinding and leave you stumbling to see the wrinkled concrete sidewalk. Yet, the streets still whir with brave riders through the blacked-out nights. Couples sharing a ride, families of three perched comfortably on a solid Cuban clunker, giggling home in the silence of a country blessed with a lack of gasoline. Ironically, one of the most impressive sights on the island was the man made Presidio Modelo, the prison in which Castro was housed for several years. Three five-story circular blockades make up the penal colony, all set against towering marble hills, which look absolutely exquisite at sunset. I guess Castro did not appreciate the view.
As in Havana, the people on the island were very approachable (to say the least). They always want to talk, not only to find out about you (continually asking which country you are from and how you like Cuba) but also to tell you about their life, their cousin in Miami, their brother in Ohio and their daughter-in-law in Charlotte. Amy and I were happy to accept an invitation for dinner from a charming couple we shared some wine with at a peso-only bar. Soon, we were introduced to all the children, grandchildren, parents and grandparents who would also be joining us for dinner. While we waited for the meal to be prepared, the couple entertained us with wine, beer, music and dancing. Amy and I graciously tried our hand at the salsa while the children laughed and tried to teach us the correct rhythm. As I watched the couple dance together, I couldnt help but notice that Cubans dance with their whole bodies not just their feet, and as I was later informed, one must feel the passion in order to do it properly. Without fault, all the Cubans I met could dance the salsa, meringue, casino and other complex partner-dances. I dont know if it's genetic or environmental, but it's there, in the blood and in the air.
Not to worry, our excursion to the island was not all giggles and rainbows. There were, of course, many life-threatening situations, including a 2-hour scuba dive with a non-English-speaking freelance instructor on a dark and windy day. And last but not least, Amy and I (tired of waiting for the overbooked ferry) took a Cubana flight on an old Russian jet, military style, the color of metal inside and out. While passengers passed around open bottles of rum, I noticed a man lighting a cigar in the third row, who had just come out of the cockpit leaving the door swinging behind him. Maybe I am just a squeamish First-Worlder or a bit compulsive with my traditional ideas of safety, but this made me feel a little unstable. Thankfully, the rum went down smooth.
Upon arriving back in Havana, Amy and I made the acquaintance of a lovely British couple (the first foreigners we had actually met on the trip) and together, we spontaneously decided to hire a driver to take us to the Pinar del Rio Province, 200 kilometers Southwest of Havana. Along the way, I become aware of the proper etiquette for hitchhiking, a form of basic transportation for all Cubans. People patiently line the roads at all major intersections, waiting for rides as all shapes and sizes of cars and motorbikes speed past. Any truck going anywhere will fill up its bed with companeros, as many extra riders as can fit standing, with perhaps a bicycle or two holding on for the bumpy ride. More so, there are all manner of jerry-rigged vehicles from which to choose. Tractor-trailer cabs pulling steel containers, their small cutout windows covered by bars of steel, and jammed like third-world prisons with suburban passengers, often painted on the side, "Transporte Popular"-- indeed. As we traveled further into the country roads of Pinar del Rio, I observed the most curious form of location: a sled involving two oxen connected by a yoke from which two ropes extended back to the hands of a man standing on two twenty foot long logs, as if they were skis. The logs were, in turn, chained to one of the oxens hind legs, the man stood causally with the cords taut, while the oxen pulled him and the logs along. Suddenly, the tin box frame with four wheels and a stereo in which I snugly sat, steadily chugging down the open road, did not seem so bad.
We arrived into the Valle de Vinales at sunset. The beauty of the limestone mountains and the rich vegetation of the rolling plains was still unmistakably visible. We stopped at a house with a room for rent sign dangling outside the door, and while the owner did not have space for all of us, his neighbor and brother, did. Manuel and his wife cooked us a tremendous meal of black beans, rice, fish, chicken, fried yuccas, fruit, coffee, and bread. Amy and I got along quite well with the lively Londoners, and the four of us stayed up late into the evening hours, sipping rum on the back porch, comparing travel tales, and enjoying the cool night air.
We rose early the following day, eager to experience in full light the glimpse of beauty we had marveled over the previous night. By bike, we set off to find a community called Los Aquaticos; a group of families who live in the hills and believe in the healing power of water, supposedly bathing three times a day and allowing themselves to be dried by the wind. As we began our ascent into the awe-inspiring mountains, I was struck by the provinces limestone bedrock, riddled with fantastic shaped caves and rivers that dive underground, creating impressive rounded tunnels that gush into sulfurous springs and sinuous waterfalls. The scenic land is densely populated with colorful jungle green and brown tobacco growing fields, and sprawling plains that overflow with sugarcane, rice paddies, stalks of yucca, clusters of coconut trees and furrows of parched earth awaiting seeds of corn. Beef cattle ranches rest snugly in the luscious foothills, bordered by spectacular arrays of tropical fruits and vegetables. The tranquility of the soft and inviting land gracefully overwhelmed me. Vinales is without a doubt, not only a photographers paradise, but the loveliest place Ive ever been in my whole life.
The valleys natural riches are equaled by the charms of its people. With a slight breeze, I was stopped in my tracks at the sight of a striking young farmer who seemed to emerge with the wind. The attractive boy sat patiently under a straw hat with curled side brims, gently smoking a cigar. Not to the liking of our solo male travel companion, the three of us, stood entranced by the natural beauty and simplicity of the Cuban country boy. He hardly spoke a word, and yet we faithfully followed him as he led us up to his humble home in the mountains. His grandfather, the only family member who appeared to be living with the boy, had the face of a thousand emotions. His organic, toothless smile and wide-eyed stare made me want to reach out and hug him.
After a glass of freshly squeezed grapefruit juice, the boy continued to lead us, by foot, up the mountain, under the sturdy trees, and through the darkened caves. Completely fascinated by the innocence and authenticity that radiated from his presence, I studied the boys every move. With bare hands, sweat and skill he rolled a fine cigar. Later, I nearly missed it when, the boy quietly unlatched the knife from his belt and disappeared into a field of sugarcane, only to return moments later with the sweetest sugar stalks one could find. It was here, following the footsteps of a Cuban Crocodile Dundee through a misty Caribbean outback, that my journey provoked that rare sentiment of a pure, uncomplicated pleasure for life.
Sitting in the dismal and empty Jose Marti International airport, I, once again, considered the reasons behind my mixed emotions for the country I was leaving.
Its beaches are the best in the Caribbean, its culture is exceptionally unique in Latin America, and its history is fascinating. Yet the contradictions in Cuba are abound. Coated by a thick edge of poverty, they express themselves quite visibly in Cubas lines. I suppose, line culture is essential to every communist bureaucracy and post-communist poverty. In Cuba, a line-joiner asks simply for "el ultimo or the last" and takes his place. Lines lounge, wait respectfully for hours across the street from the cafe that is full and the store that is yet to open. Yet the longest line in which Cubans wait is the one behind the foreigners who have now taken the front row seats in Castros orchestra.
Tourists have all the advantages and almost all the rights in Cuba, as everyone is in need of dollars and tourists have them. The power of the dollar flowing from the pockets of tourists is rapidly devaluing the Cuban peso, and at the same time, encouraging the people to hustle as many dollars from the tourists as possible for a better life. Sure travelers get hassled in most countries, but it's sad in Cuba where increased exposure to an outside world is driving them to it. It's a country where bartenders earn more than doctors, television and cinema are strictly censured, no one can leave freely or make any money independently. But then again, Socialism is all about living in a land that is not ones own. And so, the country waits. They wait not only for ice cream, but also for something to happen, for someone to press play on their history. It is my assumption that Cuba is a country on the verge of inevitable and incalculable change.
In the end, despite all of Cuba's festering sores, I embraced the country like no other before. It is the warmth of the people and the beauty of the country which still stand out as my strongest memories. It was an odd feeling when it actually came time to go: I knew I could never live in the country, but yet, I was sincerely heartbroken to say goodbye.
"Nobody is in agreement…It’s that, no one says it and no one takes the risk to say it, to speak the truth. That’s what is happening. In other words, one of the foundations, of what are the regimes in the entire world, in all of history, has been fear and lies. In other words, once you are in fear that's when you don’t take a risk, where you collect yourself and don’t unite…understood? To be in fear is not to offer help to anyone because that signifies risk." -Gorki Águila Carrasco, lead singer, guitarist of the music group Porno Para Ricardo and political prisoner
"Socialist ideology, like so many others, has two main dangers. One stems from confused and incomplete readings of foreign texts, and the other from the arrogance and hidden rage of those who, in order to climb up in the world, pretend to be frantic defenders of the helpless so as to have shoulders on which to stand." --Jose Marti
View Che Guevara's Forgotten Victims on Scribd
Sunday, August 26, 2007
Saturday, August 25, 2007
This from babalublog.com:
Cuban journalist released from prison
Cuban independent journalist Armando Betancourt Reina was released from prison on Monday, after completing a 15-month sentence for being a "public disorder." (He was arrested in May 2006 while covering the eviction of some poor residents from their housing.
More than ever, the journalist now is better suited to tell the real stories of the real Cuba, especially the castro brothers' gulag, telling Cuban Democratic Directorate:
“This 15-month imprisonment has been an important experience. Although it might not have caused me psychological damage because it was a short time, it was a time where I was able to experience firsthand the situation and living conditions of Cuba’s prisoners."
For instance, Betancourt says he saw this:
“Guards continue beating prisoners, and they do it in such a way that other prisoners do not see it, so that it will not become known around the world. They take them out of the cell block and take them to a separate location. They beat them, take them to isolation cells and return them to the cell blocks when their bruises are gone. I was there and lived it. I can confirm that human rights are being violated in Cuban prisons now as they always have been.”
With Betancourt's release, there are now 29 independent journalists in Cuban jails.
'Hot Corner' Tests Free Speech in Cuba
Yahoo! News.By Will Weissert, Associated Press. July 15, 2007.
Miguel is in mid-sentence when his face darkens and his eyes dart to the ground. His mouth is still open, but no words come out.
He has been talking about what it must be like to live in a country where the government doesn't control all radio and television. What he says is hardly incendiary, but when a policeman saunters by, he freezes.
"That's Cuba," he says after the officer has moved away. "They are always listening."
Saying the wrong thing too loudly in this country can cost you your job. Insulting Fidel Castro or other leaders in public can mean jail.
Still, freedom of speech in Cuba is more nuanced than may appear. The government tolerates criticism in a few accepted spaces, and many people do express themselves in public, sometimes even loudly and bitterly _ and more so, some say, since Castro fell ill last year and his brother Raul took over.
One such relatively free space is the enclave of benches and shade trees of Havana's Central Park where Miguel was sounding off. It's called the Esquina Caliente, or "Hot Corner," from baseball lingo for third base. Here Cuban men both young and old, black and white, some with gold chains and sneakers, others in threadbare tank tops and dusty sandals _ argue sports all day, every day.
But debate sometimes spills into other areas: women, ration cards, clothes and cars. Illegal TV hookups, water shortages, booze and last night's neighborhood Communist Party meeting.
Cuba has no free press, Internet access is restricted and phones are assumed bugged. State security agents follow government critics and foreigners, while nearly every block has its "Revolutionary Defense Committee" keeping tabs on the neighbors.
So at the Hot Corner, those who deviate from sports tend to do so quietly. Miguel asked that his last name not appear in print for fear of government repercussions.
Dissident Miriam Leiva is well known enough not to mind her surname being published. She says people are encouraged to blow off steam by complaining at communist meetings _ but then officials ignore what they say.
"For people to feel they are free to talk and complain, it relieves stress and allows an outlet for people to relax a bit," said Leiva, an independent journalist whose work is published on Web sites and in magazines outside Cuba. "But they express themselves because they have to, because they are suffering. Then nothing changes."
A more public forum for complaining is Juventud Rebelde, the Communist Party youth newspaper.
Saily Cordero, a 23-year-old housewife, wrote saying she was being denied her entitlement to free powdered milk as a woman five months pregnant. Within hours, the neighborhood councilwoman and a host of top communists appeared at her door.
"People I had never seen around here were everywhere," Cordero said.
They checked her story and determined she was not owed free milk until her sixth month of pregnancy. But Cordero said the fast response left her feeling empowered.
"I just want what's mine," she said. "If I don't get it, I will complain and complain. Whoever gets in trouble, I don't care."
In 1961, Castro famously defined free speech for Cubans: "Within the Revolution, everything; outside the Revolution, nothing."
"There was no other choice. It was, 'you're with us or you're against us' and you can imagine what happens if you're against us," Leiva said. "That's the way things are still."
Leiva's husband, Oscar Espinosa Chepe, is a state-trained economist who became an anti-communist. He was one of 75 dissidents arrested in a roundup of government critics in March 2003.
Though he was released for health reasons, Leiva and other women dress in white and march silently down Havana's busy Fifth Avenue every Sunday after Mass, wearing buttons with photos of relatives still in jail.
Their every move is watched by security officials and sometimes they are openly harassed by government supporters, but the march by the "Women in White" is largely tolerated.
"We are very peaceful, we are defenseless," Leiva said. "We are in their hands. They can do to us anything they want."
Sometimes their ranks swell to dozens, but on a recent Sunday only Leiva and four others marched, holding white umbrellas against the scorching noonday sun.
Joggers padded past on the sidewalk. A few cars honked and flashed their headlights in support.
At the end of the march, the women locked arms, prayed silently and cried "Libertad!" _ Freedom.
"We're not afraid," said Berta de Los Angeles Soler, 43, whose activist husband, Angel Moya, is serving 20 years in prison. "How can we be afraid they will put us in prison if our husbands and relatives are already there?"
Soler added that "the people see us in the street and they accept us and support us," but not all. As she spoke, a passer-by muttered obscenities while avoiding eye contact.
"It's hard," Soler said. "But if you don't work and go get something, you have nothing. Especially in Cuba."
Leiva said ordinary Cubans have been less afraid to speak openly in public since 80-year-old Castro had emergency intestinal surgery and ceded power last July 31. The "Maximum Leader" has not been seen in public since, though he writes several essays a week that appear in state media.
"I think most people are losing fear," Leiva said. "There has been a change after Fidel Castro's illness. He's not there. He used to be everywhere. It was like you breathed, and you were breathing him in, almost."
Back at the Hot Corner, lots of Cubans complain _ and some even admit to breaking the law for small freedoms _ even though the place is said to be full of plainclothes government agents.
More obvious are the uniformed policemen. Once, while a reporter was visiting, an officer listened to the conversation and checked the IDs of all Cubans participating. Another time, a policeman with a German shepherd watched in silence.
One Friday, a man named Lorenzo said he watches TV using a hidden antenna that illegally captures signals from Florida. That started an argument about how to best stash antennas during government raids.
The talk then went from what caused a power outage in Central Havana to who would be the U.S. Democratic nominee for president.
Lorenzo, a Hot Corner regular in his 70s who is old enough to remember Cuba and its heavy American presence before Castro's 1959 revolution, said he is keeping up with the U.S. presidential race.
"I'm a Republican," he said. "But for me, Bill Clinton was the best president in U.S. history. The economy was strong. They threw Monica Lewinsky at him, and he just kept going. That will help his wife."
Saturday, August 11, 2007
June 21, 2007 - 6:37PM
Zoila Meyer faces deportation, fights to stay in U.S.
Zoila Meyer with her children at her Apple Valley home. Meyer has been in the United States since she was one year old, and thought she was a citizen until 2004.
Zoila Meyer holds her son Peter at her Apple Valley home Wednesday. Meyer spent Tuesday arrested and is facing deportation stemming from her 2004 election case.
Zoila Meyer with her children at her Apple Valley home. Meyer has not been involved in any other criminal action except her voting and election in Adelanto, yet she may still be deported in thirty days.
APPLE VALLEY — Zoila Meyer has been in America since the age of 1. She has been living the American dream; marrying her high school sweetheart, raising their four children, working on a college education and winning a seat for city office. Her only problem — she isn’t an American — and now faces deportation for illegally voting in the 2004 election. “I truly thought I was a citizen, all my life. I’ve been voting since I was 18. I didn’t know I was here illegally,” she said. “It was a mistake on my parents behalf. They messed up. They didn’t want to. It just happened.” Tuesday’s arrest stems from the 2004 election. Meyer ran for — and won — a seat for Adelanto City Council where she served for 10 weeks before resigning after a family member raised questions regarding her legal status. While it is not illegal for an illegal immigrant to register to vote — it is if they actually do vote. Meyer has long contended that she was unaware of her illegal citizenship status. “This whole process is not my fault. They ask, `How can you not know you’re not a citizen?’ But if you’re parents don’t tell you this, you don’t know,” she said. “It’s like kids who don’t find out until they’re adults that they were adopted. We believe what we are told.” She and her husband, Kenneth, have four children: Peter, 5; Kennedy, 6; Waylon, 12; and Meaghan, 16. When not busy at home, she can be found at one of the local college campuses. She attends both Barstow and Victor Valley colleges and hopes to graduate this year having earned four associate of arts degrees in nursing, math and science, liberal arts and criminal justice. “That way I can do anything. I can teach, be a nurse or get into law enforcement,” she said. Apart from running for public office, she was also a level II reserve with the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department. Before becoming certified she had to go through a background check. “Who would do that if they thought they were here illegally?” she asked. On Tuesday, her husband drove her to the San Bernardino County office of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Service office where she was arrested for violation of immigration laws and now faces deportation. “This is my home. This is where my family is. This is where I have built my life. How can you pick me out of a crowd and tell me you’re taking it all from me,” she asked. If she is deported it won’t be to her homeland of Cuba. She would be sent to Canada, the last point of entry in her immigration record. Attorney Tristan Pelayes, who is not involved in the case, said he believes her situation would fall under a lot of exceptions under the deportation law. “She’s more of a citizen than a lot of us,” he said. “That’s an overzealous prosecutor that doesn’t have anything else to do.” He said there’s a difference between her case and that of someone who knowingly came into the country illegally and knowingly broke the law. “She isn’t a criminal. She was brought here when she was 1. She didn’t know. This person has been contributing to this country for years,” Pelayes said. “To deport someone like this is a great disservice to our country.” Meyer said she is proud of her Cuban heritage and also proud to have been raised in America. “But I am disappointed in the system that I am so proud of,” she said. On July 18, she must surrender herself to immigration. She is unclear what will happen at that point. “If anything good comes from this, I hope it’s that parents make sure their children are naturalized,” she said. Gretchen Losi may be reached at 951-6233 or email@example.com.
Wednesday, August 8, 2007
This from the Associated Press:
2 Cuban migrants quit Gitmo hunger strike
Posted on Wed, Aug. 08, 2007
By MICHAEL MELIA
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Two Cuban migrants held the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay quit a hunger strike after being hospitalized with health problems, a Miami-based exile group said Wednesday.
Twenty other migrants were keeping up the strike that began July 29 to protest their conditions and Washington's refusal to let them settle in the United States, said Ramon Saul Sanchez, president of the Miami-based exile group Democracy Movement.
The strikers voted against the pair rejoining them because of their ''very precarious'' condition -- one had a blood clot in his lung and the other suffered a hypoglycemic seizure, said Sanchez, who said he regularly speaks with the migrants by telephone.
A medical team has been evaluating some 20 people on ''voluntary fast,'' said Navy Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon, a Pentagon spokesman. ``They all appear to be in good health.''
Under Washington's so-called wet-foot, dry-foot policy, Cubans who make it to U.S. soil are generally allowed to stay, while those caught at sea are sent home.
The protesters are among 44 Cubans captured at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard but could not be returned to Cuba because authorities determined they had a credible fear of persecution. They have been detained at Guantánamo -- some for more than two years -- while the U.S. seeks to settle them in a third country.
Some have complained about head counts and aggressive searches for contraband.
''They're treating them as if they were criminals,'' said Lidiar Reyes, whose brother Duniel Reyes, 23, was picked up the Coast Guard in May and taken to Guantánamo. ``He left Cuba to get away from a place like that.''
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Barbara Gonzalez defended searches of the migrants, saying they have turned up contraband, including pornography, knives and scissors.
''Our priority is the safety and security of all the protected migrants that live at the Migrant Operations Center,'' she said.
The Cubans have no contact with the approximately 360 men detained in another section of Guantánamo on suspicion of terrorism or links to al Qaeda and the Taliban.
Friday, August 3, 2007
Unusual issues define Cuban girl's custody battle
The custody battle over a 4-year-old Cuban girl is filled with unusual circumstances.
By Carol Marbin Miller, cmarbin@MiamiHerald.com. July 21, 2007.
His 4-year-old daughter needs to go to the bathroom. In a public park. He doesn't want to let her go alone. But he doesn't want to go into a women's restroom, or take the girl into the men's room.
Fathers face such predicaments every day. But to this man, it's more like a test, and he can't afford to fail. A child welfare caseworker, who will help decide whether he's fit to rear the girl, is watching. The entire visit is being videotaped.
To complicate matters, he's a Cuban national whose country has spent almost a half-century telling tales about the evils of American life. He's been in Miami six weeks. His daughter barely knows him.
''Of course I know what to do with my child,'' he said in Spanish at a court hearing this week, "but in my country.''
The case, which held its first public hearing Wednesday after a year of closed-door sessions, is filled with cultural nuances and political overtones.
At the center of the dispute: a girl whose caseworker says cries at night, gnashes her teeth, and sneaks into her Cuban-American foster parents' bed out of fear she will be taken from them. At age 4, her only memories are those of the well-heeled Coral Gables family that has raised her for more than a year.
The names of the girl, her father, and her caregivers are not being revealed in this article to protect her privacy.
The picture of the girl emerging in court is that of a happy, even precocious child who has never doubted that her caregivers, and their children, are her real family.
She goes bike riding with them. She attends summer camp. She is petrified her life will be upended.
''She does not want to go to Cuba,'' said psychologist Miguel Firpi, who is working with the girl. "She becomes very, very hyper. She grinds her teeth at night. She wakes up with nightmares.''
Said Julio Vigil, another psychologist in the case: "When [her birth father] tries to give her a kiss, most of the time she rejects it.''
Anita Bock, who oversaw Miami-Dade's child welfare programs in the 1990s, said heart-wrenching custody battles are not rare, though they are seldom easy.
This dispute, however, includes some real curveballs:
o A Department of Children & Families lawyer, Rebecca Kapusta, told the judge the state would not be asking to terminate the father's rights to his daughter -- an action akin to the ''death penalty'' in custody disputes -- and that the father had been given a ''reunification case plan'' that would allow him to regain custody.
But when asked by the judge what was the state's ''goal'' for the girl, Kapusta said the state wanted the girl to live with the caregivers in a "permanent guardianship.''
o The presiding judge's desire to protect the girl -- and the Miami community -- from details of the case was so strong she closed all hearings to the public and issued a gag order prohibiting insiders from talking. The judge even threatened to jail courtroom participants who violated her secrecy order. After The Miami Herald filed a complaint, an appeals court forced the hearings open.
o For months, the U.S. State Department refused to grant the birth father permission to enter the country to fight for custody -- until the Miami judge pushed to get him a visa. Yet in court, DCF has accused him of ''abandoning'' his daughter because he didn't arrive sooner.
o A psychologist recently insisted that the Cuban man tell his daughter, with whom he's had only supervised visits, that he is her father. When the news made her yell and cry, a caseworker complained the father's visits were emotionally harmful.
Following the harrowing visit, the caseworker, Maria Zamora, said she asked the child why she appeared so angry. ''She told me she only had one father, and it's [the caregiver],'' Zamora said.
On the drive home from the visit, psychologist Firpi said, the girl tore up a toy her father had given her.
The girl, who has been described in court as mature and insightful, entered the country legally in March 2005 with her mother and older brother -- who has a different father.
The tug-of-war began that year when the girl's mother was hospitalized after a suicide attempt. The Gables family, given formal custody by DCF, decided they wanted to adopt both kids, and neither the children's mother nor the boy's father objected.
The girl's father, however, refused to surrender his rights. After a protracted battle with the State Department -- which Circuit Judge Jeri B. Cohen, who presides over the case, said she helped resolve -- the father was allowed into the country about six weeks ago.
Hearings in the case have been closed to the public for a year. Wednesday's, the first that was open, unleashed hostilities among all parties, with red faces, finger-jabbing and shouting.
Some people have drawn parallels to the Elián González case, but the difference is that the girl's case has gone to child welfare court, while Elián's did not.
The key issue before the judge is the father's fitness to care for his daughter, and lawyers with both DCF and the Miami Guardian-ad-Litem Program have visited Cuba to observe the father and his living conditions and interview family and neighbors.
Sources say child welfare administrators view such visits with a jaundiced eye, fearing they are manipulated by the Cuban government.
For the most part, a parent who has committed no egregious offense, such as severe physical abuse, is given a ''case plan'' with tasks he or she must complete in order to gain custody. The ''goal'' of the case plan typically is the reunification of parent and child.
But the DCF's stated goal in court Wednesday of permanent guardianship for the Gables family seems to conflict with the agency's decision to offer the birth father a chance to win back his daughter, several observers said.
Bock, who oversaw foster care in Miami, said her former agency's reunification plan might be "a fiction.''
''If there is no credible evidence this father has abandoned his child, either at birth or later in life, and no evidence he abused the child, there ought to be a sincere effort at reunification,'' she said.
In 1995, in one of Miami's most controversial cases, Bock overruled caseworkers and lawyers and asked a judge to allow the relatives of ''Baby J'' to adopt her, and foster mother Kathryn Reiter, who had cared for the girl for two years, absconded with her for 25 days before surrendering.
''These cases are very complicated,'' said Bock, a lawyer who is now deputy clerk of the U.S. District Court in San Francisco. "The emotions on either side are so raw.''
Jess McDonald, who headed the Illinois Department of Children & Family Services before retiring in 2003, said Illinois caseworkers occasionally would require parents to complete plans they knew were impossible.
''You have to wonder if the case plan is really a case plan, or just a series of hoops unrelated to correcting any conditions'' the father may have, McDonald said. "Let's see if we can prove the guy can't jump through the hoops.''
''I wonder if it isn't, in fact, a little bit of a setup,'' McDonald added.
Andrew Lagomasino, the Cuban father's therapist, described DCF's actions in the case in precisely the same language in court Wednesday: ''It is a setup for failure,'' he said.
''It's wonderful that so much attention is being paid to the anguish of this child,'' Lagomasino said. "But I don't see any attention being paid to a father who did nothing wrong but could lose custody of his child.''