The Iran-Cuba-Venezuela Nexus

Sunday, November 23, 2014
By Mary Anastasia O'Grady in The Wall Street Journal:

The Iran-Cuba-Venezuela Nexus

The West underestimates the growing threat from radical Islam in the Americas.

Oranjestad, Aruba - Regular readers of this column will remember that in July the U.S. asked local officials here to arrest Venezuelan Gen. Hugo Carvajal and to extradite him on suspicion of drug trafficking with Colombian guerrillas. He was detained but the Netherlands stepped in, refused the extradition request and let him go.

The general had been sent here to become Venezuelan consul and spread Bolivarian propaganda. He would have been an important intelligence grab for the U.S. So it wasn’t too surprising that Venezuelan foreign minister Elias Jaua and Cilia Flores, the wife of Venezuelan strongman Nicolás Maduro, celebrated the Dutch decision by meeting his plane when he returned to Caracas.

The third person in the high-level greeting party at the airport—the governor of the state of Aragua, Tareck Zaidan El Aissami Maddah—seemed out of place because he is not in the national government. That is until you consider his résumé: One part master of Middle-Eastern networking, one part honorary Cuban revolutionary, and one part highly ambitious chavista, Mr. El Aissami is a dream come true for Tehran and Havana. That makes him a powerful man in Venezuela.

Although President Obama is being lobbied by left-wing activists to change U.S.-Cuba policy before the next Summit of the Americas in Panama in April, his options are limited by laws that require congressional action to change. But one important decision in his hands is whether to remove Cuba from the U.S. State Department list of state sponsors of terrorism. Before the president does that, Americans ought to learn about allegations by a regional security analyst of Cuba-supported work by Mr. El Aissami on behalf of radical Islam.

The West is well aware of the growing presence of Islamic fundamentalism in the Americas, but policy makers may be underestimating the threat. Joseph Humire is a security analyst and co-editor of “Iran’s Strategic Penetration of Latin America,” a book published earlier this year. In an interview in New York last week, Mr. Humire described Iran’s significant progress, over three decades, in setting up operations in the region.

The earliest stages of the process have featured clandestine operatives using mosques to make connections inside Muslim communities and then using those connections to access wealth and gain political prominence. Where these initial forays have been successful, says Mr. Humire, Iran has opened embassies and established commercial agreements that allow operatives to create businesses, which can be used as fronts for covert operations.

In Venezuela and Bolivia, Iran has moved to the next level, developing a military presence through joint ventures in defense industries. In Venezuela, the state of Aragua, where Mr. El Aissami is now governor, is ground zero for this activity.

Havana applauds this Islamic intervention. Since the rise of chavismo, Cuba has supplied intelligence services to Venezuela and its regional allies, notably Nicaragua, Bolivia and Ecuador. Mr. Humire says it has also supplied passport-information technology to allow these countries to process individuals from the Middle East, hand out new documents and maintain the secrecy of true identities. Cuba has used this capacity to exchange information with like-minded nations, including Russia and Iran.

Raised in Venezuela by a Lebanese-born Muslim father and mentored in the “Utopia 78” left-wing student movement at the University of the Andes, he was Venezuela’s interior minister from 2008-12. According to a June 2014 paper from the Washington-based Center for a Secure Free Society, where Mr. Humire is executive director, “regional intelligence officials” believe that Mr. El Aissami’s office used information technology developed by Cuban state security to give some 173 individuals from the Middle East new Venezuelan identities that are extremely difficult to trace.

The paper, “Canada on Guard: Assessing the Immigration Threat of Iran, Venezuela and Cuba,” says that regional intelligence officials believe that “of the more notable persons of interest” who received false papers from Caracas was Suleiman Ghani Abdul Waked, an important member of Lebanese Hezbollah. The same paper, citing interviews with unnamed Latin American intelligence officials, says Mr. El Aissami has built “a criminal-terrorist pipeline bringing militant Islamists into Venezuela and surrounding countries, and sending illicit funds from Latin America to the Middle East.” Mr. Humire told me the Venezuelan government dismissed the report as U.S. propaganda.

Mr. El Aissami’s Aragua state is where Parchin Chemical Industries (PCI) and Qods Aviation, two Iranian military-owned companies, have joint ventures with Venezuela’s military industry, according to “Iran’s Strategic Penetration of Latin America.” PCI is a maker of explosives, ammunition and rocket propellant for missiles. Qods is a maker of unmanned aerial vehicles. Both companies have been sanctioned by the U.N. Security Council under Resolution 1747.

The chapter written by Mr. Humire says Havana is now “trying to clear its debt to Iran” in order to receive economic assistance from Tehran. This aid will doubtless be conditioned on greater Iranian access to nations under Cuban influence, including Venezuela, he says. They will likely turn to Mr. El Aissami for help.

How Castro Bilks U.S. "Purposeful" Travel

If this is how Castro squeezes Cuban-American and "people-to-people" travel, just imagine the windfall it would receive from tourism.

After all, Americans (unlike Europeans and Canadians) are famously "generous" travelers.

And this doesn't include the huge profits (which stymie the landing fees) being made from U.S. travelers -- "people-to-people" in particular, which goes directly to the regime -- as they all stay at Cuban military-owned hotels and resorts, dine at their restaurants and party at their nightclubs.

Excerpts from The Tampa Tribune:

Fees for Americans a sore spot in Cuba travel

The battle for the Cuban charter flight business out of Tampa International Airport has landed in federal court, exposing what U.S. citizens must pay the secretive Cuban government for use of Havana’s José Martí International Airport.

The annual total is somewhere between $31 million and $62 million — more than any other nation pays, said one Cuba analyst — enough to make critics question whether the fee is covering actual costs or going to support Cuba’s ruling Castro regime.

Tampa International Airport, by comparison, received $14.6 million in landing fees during 2014 for flights from airlines based in every nation that lands here.

On a per-flight basis, the same U.S. plane that pays $275 for landing fees at Tampa International pays up to $24,000 in Havana.

The cost estimates on U.S.-Cuba flights is based on two factors: the revelation in court documents that landing fees range as high as $148 for each U.S. passenger, coupled with the projection that two-thirds of the 635,000 Americans traveling to the island nation in 2014 are destined for the capital city of Havana.

The $148 figure listed in the lawsuit is consistent with a U.S. charter company contract for landing rights in Havana obtained by the Tribune.

“All that money goes to the government, who then decides where it is spent, including military and security forces for surveillance,” said Jim Cason, mayor of Coral Gables, who was chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana from 2002 to 2005. “Anyone who believes otherwise is very naive.”

Cuba might even charge different fees to different U.S. charter companies, said Cason, the former chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.

“There is a tremendous amount of bribery in all of this,” Cason said. “If someone offered Cuba money for lower rates, they would take it. The system is totally open to corruption.”

Must-Watch: Cuban Family Stops Traffic in Protest

In the video below, an opposition activist in Santiago de Cuba, whose family has been evicted from their home and children kicked out of school, stops traffic to protest this injustice.

Listen to his calls for freedom. Moreover, note the gathering crowds as they film with their phones.

Finally, watch as Castro's secret police (as opposed to uniformed police) storms in to arrest him and his family -- and the repulsion of the gathering crowd.

Why is this young activist and his family such a threat to Castro's regime?

See video below (or here):

Cuban Doctors Yearning to Breathe Freely

Saturday, November 22, 2014
From The Weekly Standard's Scrapbook:

Doctors Yearning to Breathe Free

"Brain drain” is a phrase that first appeared in the 1950s, when London’s Royal Society expressed concern about the number of British scientists, engineers, and physicians being lured to the United States. Its concern was not misplaced: The Second World War had essentially bankrupted Britain, and in the wake of postwar privations and the nationalization of health care, the number of British professionals crossing the Atlantic to affluent America was substantial.

Since then, the phrase has been applied retroactively: The arrival of German Jewish refugees—novelists, scientists, scholars, composers—during the Third Reich was a “brain drain” for Germany but an unexpected bonus for us. So imagine The Scrapbook’s surprise, if you will, when the New York Times revived the term in a November 16 editorial (“A Cuban Brain Drain, Courtesy of the U.S.”).

Only this time it wasn’t about Scottish engineers taking high-paying jobs in Texas, or Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany for their lives. It was in reference to the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program, an eight-year-old U.S. immigration measure that puts Cuban health professionals who choose to defect on the fast track to American citizenship. And the Times is against it.

Since Cuba is a closely organized Communist police state, it has an educated population with limited opportunities to practice their professions. The typical bartender in a Havana tourist hotel (no Cuban customers allowed) holds a master’s degree in electrical engineering. The same is true for the health sciences. Cuba trains a large number of nurses, technicians, and physicians, but the products of these programs are coerced into overseas service to generate foreign currency. Cuba trades health workers for oil from Venezuela, for example; more than a few Cuban physicians are treating Ebola patients in West Africa, and Havana seizes the bulk of their income.

The fact that many Cuban health workers might resent this state of affairs—and consider their overseas labor a form of indentured servitude—is self-evident. Even the Times acknowledges that “some doctors who have defected say they felt the overseas tours had an implicit element of coercion and have complained that the government pockets the bulk of the money it gets for their services.” Yet the editorial sympathy of the Times is extended not to exploited doctors—whose annual incomes, after a recent government raise, are a stupefying $720 a year—but to the Cuban government. The Times complains that the Castro dictatorship trained these health workers, and now the United States is offering them a life of freedom and prosperity!

The language of the Times editorial is telling. The author of the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program was the “hard-line Cuban exile” Emilio González, who headed the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services during the Bush administration. And “the Cuban government has long regarded the medical defection program as a symbol of American duplicity.”

The Scrapbook begs to differ with the New York Times. The program is a lifeline for people who have dedicated their lives to health care and wish to practice their profession in freedom and dignity. It also undermines the coercive power of a dictatorship and illustrates why America remains a beacon to the world.

There is one word to describe those who sit comfortably in Manhattan—well paid, highly educated, free to speak their minds—and would shut the door on doctors and nurses who seek the basic freedoms American journalists take for granted. That word is “grotesque.”

Is Cuba Shilling for North Korea in the Congo?

Cuba has clearly become North Korea's biggest international shill.

Last year, over 240 tons of Cuban weapons were interdicted en route to North Korea.  This was the largest violation of U.N. Security Council sanctions to date.

And just last month, Cuba led a shameful effort in the United Nations to whitewash North Korea's human rights violations and protect the Kim regime from possible prosecution for "crimes against humanity."

This week, Cuban state media reported that senior military officials from the Democratic Republic of the Congo were visiting Havana in order to "discuss expanding technical military cooperation."

They met with Castro's Minister of Defense (FAR), Alvaro Lopez Miera, and and other senior military officials. (See image below).

This may sound somewhat innocuous, but as The University of Miami's Dr. Jaime Suchlicki reminded us last year in "Cuba and North Korea: Brothers in 'Arms'":

"For the past 50 years, Cuba has been an ally and supporter of numerous anti-American regimes and revolutionary and terrorist groups, some still struggling to attain and consolidate power and impose Marxist ideologies on their population. One of these is the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Congolese army has failed to quell a growing 10 month insurgencies which has dragged the country’s eastern region back to war. The rebellion could increase the possibility of conflict with neighboring Uganda and Rwanda, which allegedly are supporting the rebels. The Marxist Congolese government led by Joseph Kabila, a close friend of Cuba, has been struggling to retain power and crush the rebellion.

Congo is a major source of uranium, which North Korea needs for its nuclear program. Shipments of North Korean weapons bound for the Congo have been intercepted in the past. Are the Cubans and North Koreans gambling to support their comrades in the Congo? The Director of the Sub-Saharan Department of Cuba’s Foreign Ministry and former Ambassador to the Congo, Hector Igarza, led a high level, little publicized, delegation to Congo in February of this year, perhaps offering Cuban support to the beleaguered Congo regime. In September 2011, Kabila visited Gen. Raul Castro in Havana.

If it is determined that the weapons were destined for the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or any other nation, it could have significant implications."

In 2010, a shipment of North Korean arms destined for the Congo was interdicted by South Africa.

As the BBC reported:

"South Africa has confirmed it seized banned military equipment on a ship sailing from North Korea to the Republic of Congo.

The foreign ministry said it had reported the seizure to the UN Security Council, saying the shipment broke a UN weapons sanction against North Korea.

The report said spare parts for T-55 tanks were hidden among sacks of rice in two shipping containers."

Moreover, last year, an "arms for uranium" agreement pact between Zimbabwe and North Korea was denounced, with Congolese President Joseph Kabila's family-owned mining company, Cosleg, playing a key role.

As a reminder, it was a "technical military cooperation" visit to Havana by senior North Korean military officials that preceded last year's illegal arms interdiction.

It's worth keeping an eye on.

Cuba Renews Support for Iran's Nuclear Program

From Iranian state media (FNA):

Cuba Renews Support for Iran's Nuclear Program

Cuban Vice President Gladys Bejerano Portela in a meeting with Iran's new Ambassador to Havana Kambiz Sheikh Hassani renewed her country’s full support for Tehran's peaceful nuclear program.

"We strongly support Iran's efforts to make further progress in the field of nuclear technology and removal of the western sanctions," Portela said during the meeting on Thursday.

She pointed to the two countries’ friendly relations, and said, "We want further improvement of relations, specially in the economic and trade areas."

Sheikh Hassani, for his part, pointed to the status quo of Tehran-Havana relation, and said, "I will do my best during my tenure here in Havana to further broaden bilateral ties between the two countries."

In recent years, Iran has been seeking to enhance its relations with Latin American countries within the framework of international organizations such as the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), whose rotating presidency is currently held by Iran.

Obama Firm on Cuba Policy, Says Senior Advisor

From Cafe Fuerte (translation by Havana Times):

Obama Firm on Cuba Policy, says adviser

One of the closest foreign policy advisers in the White House said Wednesday that President Barack Obama will not take executive action to ease the embargo on Cuba. He noted that any change of policy towards the island depends on the regime of Raul Castro showing “significant changes”.

“Unless Cuba is able to demonstrate that it is taking significant steps, I don’t know how we could move forward in our relationship,” said Antony J. Blinken, deputy national security adviser, during a hearing in the US Senate.

Blinken appeared before the Senate to testify at his first confirmation hearing for the post of Assistant Secretary of State, nominated by Obama. After his introduction he answered the questions in a session chaired by the Cuban Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Marco Rubio asked for clarification

And near the end of the two-hour hearing, Senator Marco Rubio took his turn to interrogate Blinken about his opinions about the situation in Venezuela, the crossroads of the negotiations between the government and the FARC in Colombia, and Cuba.

Regarding Cuba, Rubio called for clarification on recent reports that over the next two years of his presidency, Obama could issue executive measures on Cuba to remove barriers of the embargo and promote the normalization of relations with the Castro regime.

Rumors about that possibility have increased in recent weeks following a barrage of editorials from The New York Times asking the administration to renew its policy toward the island.

Blinken denied it and said that such a policy change is not foreseeable in the midst of the attitude of the Cuban regime to maintain prisoner the US contractor Alan Gross, sentenced to 15 years in prison.

“Anything you could do in Cuba should be consistent with the law and secondly, everything in the future should be done in full consultation with Congress,” the official said.

In the wrong direction

Blinken maintained that the Cuban government has been moving in the wrong direction, increasing political arrests and keeping in prison Alan Gross, whose unjust incarceration remains an obstacle to the normalization of relations.

Blinken said the president has ideas on how to promote the democratization of Cuba and on how to prepare the Cuban people for future changes. He said that if an opportunity arises to move in that direction “he may take advantage of it.”

“But that depends on Cuba and the actions it takes,” he noted.

Rubio insisted that the types of changes in Cuba sought by the Obama administration should not only be in the economic sector.

Democratic reforms

Blinken said that any progress in the bilateral relationship will be determined by “democratic reforms, not simply by economic reforms.”

At the end of the session, Menendez spoke to suggest that Washington should not accept that Cuba attends the Summit of the Americas in Panama in April 2015. He further recalled the recent position of the Cuban regime in opposition to a UN resolution to sanction North Korea, backed by the vast majority of the international community.

Menendez also recalled that Havana insists on the release of three Cuban spies in US prisons in exchange for the release of Alan Gross, when they are very different cases. He also mentioned the name of Ana Belen Montes, a former Pentagon official sentenced to 25 years, as part of the long arm of Cuban espionage on US soil.

Blinken is expected to be confirmed for the position in the State Department before the congressional end of the year recess.

Weekend Listening: NPR's Cuba Policy Debate

Earlier this week, NPR’s Diane Rehm show discussed U.S. policy towards Cuba.

It featured input from Mauricio Claver-Carone of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, American University's William LeoGrande, the Center for a Free Cuba’s Frank Calzon and Brookings Institution’s Ted Piccone.

The hour-long show can be heard here.