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Artie Ayala & Omar "El Bombero" Fernandez

April 30, 2009

Taxpayers to get rude surprise

Millions of Americans enjoying their small windfall from President Barack Obama's "Making Work Pay" tax credit are in for an unpleasant surprise next spring.

The government is going to want some of that money back.

The tax credit is supposed to provide up to $400 to individuals and $800 to married couples as part of the massive economic recovery package enacted in February. Most workers started receiving the credit through small increases in their paychecks in the past month.

But new tax withholding tables issued by the IRS could cause millions of taxpayers to get hundreds of dollars more than they are entitled to under the credit, money that will have to be repaid at tax time.

At-risk taxpayers include a broad swath of the public: married couples in which both spouses work; workers with more than one job; retirees who have federal income taxes withheld from their pension payments and Social Security recipients with jobs that provide taxable income.

The Internal Revenue Service acknowledges problems with the withholding tables but has done little to warn average taxpayers.

"They need to get the Goodyear blimp out there on this," said Tom Ochsenschlager, vice president of taxation for the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants.

For many, the new tax tables will simply mean smaller-than-expected tax refunds next year, IRS spokesman Terry Lemons said. The average refund was nearly $2,700 this year.

But taxpayers who calculate their withholding so they get only small refunds could face an unwelcome tax bill next April, said Jackie Perlman, an analyst with the Tax Institute at H&R Block.

"They are going to get a surprise," she said.

Perlman's advice: check your federal withholding to make sure sufficient taxes are being taken out of your pay. If you are married and both spouses work, you might consider having taxes withheld at the higher rate for single filers. If you have multiple jobs, you might consider having extra taxes withheld by one of your employers. You can make that request with a Form W-4.

The IRS has a calculator on its Web site to help taxpayers figure withholding. So do many private tax preparers.

Obama has touted the tax credit as one of the big achievements of his first 100 days in office, boasting that 95 percent of working families will qualify in 2009 and 2010.

The credit pays workers 6.2 percent of their earned income, up to a maximum of $400 for individuals and $800 for married couples who file jointly. Individuals making more $95,000 and couples making more than $190,000 are ineligible.

The tax credit was designed to help boost the economy by getting more money to consumers in their regular paychecks. Employers were required to start using the new withholding tables by April 1.

The tables, however, don't take into account several common categories of taxpayers, experts said.

For example:

--A single worker with two jobs making $20,000 a year at each job will get a $400 boost in take-home pay at each of them, for a total of $800. That worker, however, is eligible for a maximum credit of $400, so the remaining $400 will have to be paid back at tax time -- either through a smaller refund or a payment to the IRS.

The IRS recognized there could be a similar problem for married couples if both spouses work, so it adjusted the withholding tables. The fix, however, was imperfect.

-- A married couple with a combined income of $50,000 is eligible for an $800 credit. However, if both spouses work and make more than $13,000, the new withholding tables give them each a $600 boost -- for a total of $1,200.

There were 33 million married couples in 2008 in which both spouses worked. That's 55 percent of all married couples, according to the Census Bureau.

-- A single college student with a part-time job making $10,000 would get a $400 boost in pay. However, if that student is claimed as a dependent on a parent's tax return, she doesn't qualify for the credit and would have to repay it when she files next year.

Some retirees face even bigger headaches.

The Social Security Administration is sending out $250 payments to more than 50 million retirees in May as part of the economic stimulus package. The payments will go to people who receive Social Security, Supplemental Security Income, railroad retirement benefits or veteran's disability benefits.

The payments are meant to provide a boost for people who don't qualify for the tax credit. However, they will go to retirees even if they have earned income and receive the credit. Those retirees will have the $250 payment deducted from their tax credit -- but not until they file their tax returns next year, long after the money may have been spent.

Retirees who have federal income taxes withheld from pension benefits also are getting an income boost as a result of the new withholding tables. However, pension benefits are not earned income, so they don't qualify for the tax credit. That money will have to paid back next year when tax returns are filed.

More than 20 million retirees and survivors receive payments from defined benefit pension plans, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute. However, it is unclear how many have federal taxes withheld from their payments.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union raised concerns about the effect of the tax credit on pension payments in a letter to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner in March.

Geithner responded that Treasury and IRS understood the concerns and were "exploring ways to mitigate that effect."

Rep. Dave Camp of Michigan, the top Republican on the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, said Geithner has yet to respond to concerns raised by committee members.

"So far we've got the, 'If we don't address this maybe it will go away' approach," Camp said.

April 29, 2009

April 17, 2009

Cuba Visits Cubanazos.com

Obama, No More Embargo ?

Obama’s actions favor Castros, not human rights

On a recent April morning, I joined a group of former Cuban political prisoners and family members and human rights activists at a rally to voice concerns about human rights violations in Cuba, and to caution the Obama administration not to extend benefits to Cuba without the prior release of all political prisoners.

Days earlier, seven Democratic members of the House returned from Cuba having met with Raul and Fidel Castro. They gushed with praise for the Castros and their regime. But I, and many others, were profoundly disappointed that once again members of Congress traveled to this totalitarian country and failed to visit prisoners of conscience, all of whom are systematically abused, tortured, starved and degraded.

They failed to visit their harassed families. They failed to visit courageous human rights advocates like Jorge Luis Garcia Perez, “Antunez,” who has been on a hunger strike since mid-February. The lawmakers failed to even attempt to see Dr. Oscar Biscet, a medical doctor and human rights reformer who has been treated with such wanton cruelty that he may not long survive.

When the tragic plight of political prisoners is ignored, suppressed, devalued or trivialized by visiting politicians, the bullies in the gulags are emboldened to further inflict pain on their prisoners

Sadly, only four days after the rally, the Obama administration took unprecedented and unilateral actions to increase travel and financial transactions to Cuba, with virtually nothing in exchange on the Castros’ behalf. At a bare minimum, the U.S. should have insisted on reasonable liberalizations for Cubans traveling to the U.S., especially Cuba’s abhorrent practice of holding back the children of Cubans traveling, in effect using children as hostages to guarantee the travelers’ return.

By allowing Cuban-Americans to visit Cuba, spending U.S. dollars on state-owned hotels, restaurants and transportation, President Obama has handed over a huge economic boon to Fidel and Raul Castro. Further, Obama’s decision to permit Cuban-Americans to send money to their relatives in Cuba also puts money directly into the pockets of Havana, since these remittances are heavily levied with Cuban government fees.

The State Department’s 2008 Country Report on Human Rights Practices estimated that there were over 200 political prisoners in Cuba and as many as 5,000 citizens who served sentences without being charged with any specific crime. In the prisons, beatings and abuse of detainees and political prisoners, including human rights activists, are carried out with impunity. The report also cited “severe limitations on freedom of speech and press” as well as the denial of peaceful assembly, associations, movements, exit permits and freedom of religion.

Consider the cause of José Cohen, a former Cuban Interior Ministry official, who fled Cuba on a raft in August 1994. He testified at a congressional hearing I chaired several years ago, and told my committee that he has been trying to get his wife and three children out of Cuba, and to this day, Castro has refused to grant them permission to leave the island. Rather than the exception, the Cohens’ plight is the rule.

Over the past 50 years, the Castros and their secret police have been directly responsible for killing thousands of non-violent, courageous pro-democracy activists and for jailing and torturing tens of thousands. And they continue to this day, to perpetrate their brutal crimes.

As far back as 2001, I have offered an amendment to lift the travel ban to Cuba in exchange for improvements on basic human rights, including the release of all political prisoners. Cuba has failed to make any significant steps regarding human rights.

The Obama administration’s actions are favorable to the Castro brothers, who will select those to be approved for visas and be allowed into Cuba. Those perceived as promoting human rights or basic freedoms stand little chance of entering the country.

In fact, since 1989, even the International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC) has been blocked from visiting and assessing the welfare of prisoners. Last week, Congressman Frank Wolf of Virginia and I again asked the Cuban government for visas to visit political prisoners. (We’ve been turned away twice before.)

Before the Obama administration even considers making further concessions to Cuba or altering the trade embargo on Cuba, both the White House and Congress have a moral obligation—a duty—to ensure that the Cuban dictatorship releases all prisoners of conscience, makes substantial progress in respecting freedom of religion, freedom of speech and the press, freedom of assembly, and holds free and fair elections.

April 16, 2009

Cuba's Cyber Revolutionary

In America, 2009 has thus far been dominated by discussions about how best to alleviate a recession that began just over a year ago. But in communist Cuba, 2009 has been dominated by the commemoration of a revolution that helped induce 50 years of economic depression and instability.

But after half a century of broken promises of justice and prosperity, there is a new revolution stirring in Cuba. Not a revolution marked by murder and repression of human rights and waged with guns and explosives. It is, rather, a revolution of ideas and information undertaken with flash drives, digital cameras, memory cards and other technologies that are giving voice to a new generation of Cubans.

Perhaps most prominent among Cuba's new cyber revolutionaries is Yoani Sánchez, who writes an influential blog called Generaciòn Y.

During a December trip to Cuba, one of this column's authors, Jordan Allott, spoke with Yoani about how her writing is helping to bring change to Cuba.

Though Yoani sometimes interjects politics into her writing, she focuses mainly on the frustrations of daily life in Cuba. "I don't have a list of themes to write about," Yoani says. "I'm not a journalist. I am a citizen who is writing about what is happening in my life. I only write about things that I experience personally, whether it is Fidel Castro or the potatoes at the supermarket."

As it happens, Yoani's personal experiences reveal a lot about political realities in Cuba. Which is why, she says, "The process of making Generación Y wasn't easy. There's a personal cost and a family cost, but I don't want to play the victim. I'm responsible. I prefer not to be constantly looking over my shoulder, even if I know they are watching."

The "they" to which Yoani refers are the Cuban authorities, who monitor her blog and make it virtually inaccessible to those on the island. Yoani is regularly threatened with jail time. But she continues to write, because, she says, it "allows me to say…what is forbidden to me in my public action."

Yoani was recently hauled into a police station and read the following script: "We want to warn you that you have transgressed all the limits of tolerance with your rapprochement and contacts with counter-revolutionary elements. This totally disqualifies you for dialogue with Cuban authorities."

Though "disqualifie[d]" from dialogue with the Cuban government, Yoani is engaged in a rich dialogue with millions outside Cuba who are sympathetic to the plight of a citizenry held hostage. Yoani's simple blog has been so influential (Generación Y receives about 2 million hits a month) that she was recently named by Time magazine as one of the world's 100 most influential people.

Because access to the Internet is severely restricted in Cuba, Yoani goes through a lot to get her dispatches out to the world, e-mailing them to friends across the globe who translate and post her writing on her blog. Yoani is often forced to pose as a tourist to get into cafes or Western hotels to access the Internet.

Traveling in Cuba, one is struck by the sense of hopelessness among Cuba's youth. Thousands study computer programming at Cuba's University of Information Sciences, and increased Internet access means more young Cubans are catching a glimpse of what life is like in free nations across the globe.

Yoani says, "Most young people's eyes are looking to the outside, because they see that they cannot make change in their country. They only see the status quo. Most young people desire to take a plane to Miami or Europe and in 10 hours change their lives completely. They know they cannot realize their dreams here."

But Cuba needs young Cubans like Yoani who are willing to stay and work for freedom from within.

When Jordan spoke with Yoani in Havana in early December, they met at the prestigious foreigner-only National Hotel, which was hosting the Latin American Film Festival the same weekend. This made for an interesting scene. Numerous Western journalists were present for the film festival and to laud Che, a sympathetic biopic about the life of Ernesto "Che" Guevara, the Castro lieutenant, mass murderer and cult hero to leftwing radicals. Meanwhile, a short distance away, Jordan met with Yoani to discuss what she and other democracy advocates are doing to help tear down the legacy of Che, Fidel, and a government that keeps its people in bondage.

Yoani remains hopeful and believes "change will come not through government agencies but through the citizens and the spread of information and exchange with the outside world." The Western media can assist with this exchange or turn a blind eye. Either way, with Yoani and a new generation of cyber revolutionaries casting the bright light of reality on the failed Castro regime, the truth will no longer be easy to ignore.

Oscar's Cuba "Sneak Peek"

"Habana: The New Art of Creating Ruins"

I saw this post on Blog for Cuba and thought I should share it with you.
Our Beautiful City in Ruins...The Result of 50 Years of Comunist Dictatorship

April 15, 2009

Phone Conversation with Jorge Luis García Pérez (Antúnez) 3/24/09

Yoani Sanchez & Generation Y

Yoani Sanchez, a University of Havana graduate in philology, emigrated to Switzerland in 2002, to build a new life for herself and her family. Two years later, she decided to return Cuba, but promised herself she would live there as a free person. Generation Y is an expression of this promise. Yoani calls her blog ‘an exercise in cowardice’ that allows her to say what is forbidden in the public square. It reaches readers around the world in over a dozen languages. In 2008, Time Magazine named her one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World; this year it named Generation Y one of the Best Blogs of 2009. Spain honored her with its highest award for digital journalism, the Ortega y Gasset Prize. Yoani lives with her husband, independent journalist Reinaldo Escobar, and their son in a high rise apartment in Havana, overlooking Revolution Square. She blogs about daily life in the Castros' Cuba at: www.desdecuba.com/generationy.

April 13, 2009

Obama to Lift Cuba Travel Restrictions

By Michael D. Shear of the Washing Post

President Obama will announce today that he is lifting some restrictions on Cuban Americans' contact with Cuba and allowing U.S. telecom companies to operate there, opening up the communist island nation to more cellular and satellite service, a senior White House official said.

The decision does not lift the trade embargo on Cuba but eases the prohibitions that have restricted Cuban Americans from visiting their relatives and has limited what they can send back home.

It also allows companies to establish fiber-optic and satellite links between the United States and Cuba and will permit U.S. companies to be licensed for roaming agreements in Cuba.

Communications of those kinds have been prohibited under tough rules put in place by George W. Bush's administration to pressure for democratic change in the island nation.

But under the new policy promoted by Obama, satellite radio companies and television providers will also be able to enter into transactions necessary to provide service to Cuban citizens.

It will also provide an exception to the trade embargo to allow personal cell phones, computes and satellite receivers to be sent to Cuba.

As a candidate, Obama promised to seek closer relations with Cuba, and courted Cuban voters in the key state of Florida. As president, he has signaled that he intends to move toward a greater openness.

A White House aide said the president believes that democratic change will come to the Cuban nation more quickly if the United States reaches out to the people of Cuba and their relatives in the United States.

But the move is highly controversial, especially among those who supported former Bush's hardline policy, which viewed the restrictions as a way of spurring political change.

Obama's administration takes a somewhat different view, but has resisted a wholesale elimination of the trade embargo and travel ban, which has been pushed for by some in Congress.

The announcement, which is expected to come later today, comes as the president prepares to leave Thursday for the Summit of the America's in Trinidad, and a stop in Mexico.

Just Shut Up !

April 7, 2009

Antúnez - A Symbol of Greatness !

Publicized in "El Diario Las Americas" March 19th 2009