U.S. Sanctions Raúl Castro’s Ex-Son-in-Law, Head of Cuban Military Money Machine

Police officers strengthen security in El Carmelo neighbourhood in Havana on April 4, 2020 after Cuban authorities announced its isolation as a measure to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus after the detection of COVID-19 cases. (Photo by Yamil LAGE / AFP) (Photo by YAMIL LAGE/AFP via Getty Images)
YAMIL LAGE/AFP via Getty Images

The U.S. Treasury Department announced on Wednesday that it would label Cuban regime moneymaker Luis Alberto Rodríguez López-Calleja a “specially designated person,” freezing all assets within U.S. reach and banning Americans from doing business with him.

Rodríguez was once the son-in-law of dictator Raúl Castro and runs the conglomerate GAESA, the parent holding group controlling dozens of Cuban companies funding the regime. GAESA investments include stores and gas stations, hotels and tourism properties, construction groups, and companies that profit from remittances. While nominally communist, the regime uses controlled “private” companies like those under GAESA to pay for its state security, responsible for widespread human rights violations against political dissidents, and its expensive foreign adventurism in places like Venezuela, Nicaragua, and formerly Bolivia.

GAESA is fully owned by the Cuban military, the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR).

“All assets, property, and interests of property of Mr. Rodríguez López-Calleja that are subject to U.S. jurisdiction, including within the possession or control of U.S. persons, continue to be blocked, and U.S. persons are generally prohibited from dealing with him,” the State Department announced on Wednesday.

“The revenue generated from the economic activities of GAESA is used to oppress the Cuban people and to fund Cuba’s parasitic, colonial domination of Venezuela,” the State Department noted. “Today’s action demonstrates the United States’ long-standing commitment to ending economic practices that disproportionately benefit the Cuban government or its military, intelligence, and security agencies or personnel at the expense of the Cuban and Venezuelan people.”

GAESA is believed to control over 50 companies, prominently including Gaviota, a company that administers luxury hotels on behalf of the Communist Party. Gaviota owns hotels and, in many cases, signs lucrative contracts with foreign hotel chains to allow them to administer the facilities and brand them as their own. At the peak of American tourism on the island in 2016 — tourism is technically illegal for Americans in Cuba, but under President Barack Obama, the State Department offered loopholes to easily allow for tourism — Gaviota reportedly controlled 62 hotels on the island.

“Today GAESA boasts dozens of companies that control anywhere from 40 percent to 60 percent of the Caribbean island’s foreign exchange earnings, according to Cuban economists,” Reuters noted in 2017, in an article highlighting the concerns of businesspeople profiting from deals with the Communist Party military over potential sanctions in the Trump era. GAESA has attempted to continue to expand since then, but faced growing challenges via sanctions and limitations on American patronizing of its service assets.

While mildly deterred by the Chinese coronavirus pandemic, Gaviota launched deals packages for foreign tourists in July in an attempt to attract travelers with limited options now that responsible countries have restricted tourism. In March, Cuban officials indicated that their pandemic plan would be to openly advertise to foreign tourists, potentially importing the virus onto an island with a decrepit healthcare system, but imposed mild travel restrictions in response to international outrage.

For decades, Cuba maintained a formal apartheid-style policy banning Cuban nationals from Cuba’s luxury hotels. This, too, it reversed in the face of international disgust in 2008, but it raised hotel prices so high so has to enforce a de facto ban on Cubans enjoying businesses in their own country. Even at the discounted pandemic prices, a Gaviota hotel near Varadero, considered one of Cuba’s most beautiful and popular beaches, costs between 54 and 192 Cuban “convertible” pesos, or about the same in U.S. dollars. The Cuban interest site CiberCuba notes that the monthly minimum wage in Cuba is $15, and the average monthly wage is about $30.

While American tourism to Cuba peaked in the Obama years, President Donald Trump’s administration has largely reversed those gains for the Communist Party. The Trump administration banned Americans from dozens of Gaviota hotels in 2017. A year later, the Trump administration placed GAESA generally on its list of restricted entities, limiting its access to U.S. dollars. Wednesday’s sanctions target, rather than GAESA, Rodríguez himself, who administers the holding group.

Rodríguez is not a prominent figure among Cuban communist leaders and rarely makes public appearances outside of business meetings to promote GAESA’s interests. Sanctioning him, however, sends a message to Cuban communist leaders that they will personally face consequences for keeping an authoritarian regime that regularly exploits, tortures, and silences its people afloat.

The Rodríguez sanction shortly followed an announcement by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that Washington would also sanction “American International Service,” (AIS) a company that processes remittances from Cubans in the United States to family members.

“Today we placed sanctions on AIS, a Cuban military-controlled company that skims money from remittances sent to the Cuban people,” Pompeo announced last week. “AIS revenues fund the regime’s oppression and its interference in Venezuela. This action will reduce the regime’s capacity to repress its own people.”

AIS processes remittances that arrive on the island through FINCIMEX, one of GAESA’s subsidiaries.

Granma, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of Cuba, has yet to mention the GAESA head sanctions at press time. As it does on a daily basis, however, the propaganda outlet published several columns on Thursday condemning the United States for sanctioning the Castro regime generally. One of those was a written speech by an environmental bureaucrat delivered to the United Nations this week as part of its “Summit on Biodiversity.”

“Our will to advance on this front [environmentalism] will remain despite the economic, financial, and commercial blockade imposed by the United States, hardened during the current administration,” the representative claimed. “Without a blockade, Cuba would have more access to financial resources, goods, and technologies and fewer limitations for the development of its international cooperation.”

Cuba’s “international cooperation” largely consists of its trafficking of slave doctors, its most lucrative industry. The Castro regime makes about $8 billion a year selling doctors to friendly countries, sending them into dangerous areas to work without pay. A group of over 600 Cuban doctors who defected from the system, and are punished by being banned from seeing their families in Cuba for eight years, have filed a complaint before the International Criminal Court (ICC), noting that slavery is legally a crime against humanity.

The doctors testified that they did not receive payment for their work — just a meager “living stipend” — were forced to destroy medicine to falsify statistics on how many patients they treated, endured constant government espionage, and enjoyed no freedom of mobility.

The Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO), a subsidiary of the World Health Organization (W.H.O.), helped legalize the contract Cuba signed to send slave doctors to Brazil, leading to questions regarding its role in human trafficking. Last week, U.S. Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) demanded a Senate investigation into PAHO’s role in Cuban doctor slavery.

The W.H.O. itself is facing multiple scandals, including allegations it conspired with the Communist Party of China to initially minimize concerns about the Chinese coronavirus and accusations that its workers in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), there to help fight its latest Ebola outbreak, used their positions to rape local women.

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