A Lesson for the Ingenuous: How Cuba Took Over Venezuela

Tuesday, April 15, 2014
A lesson for those who ingenuously believe the Castro regime is a passive, non-threatening dictatorship.

By Moisés Naím in The Financial Times:

Cuba fed a president’s fears and took over Venezuela

The enormous influence that Cuba has gained in Venezuela is one of the most under-reported geopolitical developments of recent times. It is also one of the most improbable. Venezuela is nine times bigger than Cuba, three times more populous, and its economy four times larger. The country boasts the world’s largest oil reserves. Yet critical functions of the Venezuelan state are either overseen or directly controlled by Cuban officials.

Venezuela receives Cuban health workers, sports trainers, bureaucrats, security personnel, militias and paramilitary groups. “We have over 30,000 members of Cuba’s Committees for the Defence of the Revolution in Venezuela,” boasted Juan José Rabilero, then head of the CDR, in 2007. The number is likely to have increased further since then.

A growing proportion of Venezuela’s imports are channelled through Cuban companies. Recently, Maria Corina Machado, an opposition leader, revealed the existence of a large warehouse of recently expired medicines imported through a Cuban intermediary – drugs allegedly purchased on the international market at a deep discount and resold at full price to the government.

The relationship goes beyond subsidies and advantageous business opportunities for Cuban agencies. Cuban officers control Venezuela’s public notaries and civil registries. Cubans oversee the computer systems of the presidency, ministries, social programmes, police and security services as well as the national oil company, according to Cristina Marcano, a journalist who has reported extensively on Cuba’s influence in Venezuela.

Then there is military co-operation. The minister of defence of a Latin American country told me: “During a meeting with high-ranking Venezuelan officers we reached several agreements on co-operation and other matters. Then three advisers with a distinctive Cuban accent joined the meeting and proceeded to change all we had agreed. The Venezuelan generals were clearly embarrassed but didn’t say a word.... Clearly, the Cubans run the show.

Why did the Venezuelan government allow this lopsided foreign intervention? The answer is Hugo Chávez. During his 14-year presidency he enjoyed absolute power thanks to his complete control of every institution that could have constrained him, from the judiciary to the legislature. He could also use Venezuela’s oil revenues at will.

One of the most transformational ways in which Chávez used the complete power he wielded was to let the Cubans in. He had many reasons to throw himself into the arms of Fidel Castro. He felt a deep affection, admiration and trust for the Cuban leader, who became a personal adviser, political mentor and geopolitical guide. Mr Castro also fed Chávez’s conviction that his many enemies – especially the US and the local elites – were out to get him and that his military and security services could not be trusted to provide the protection he needed. But the Cubans could reliably offer these services. Cuba also provided a ready-to-use international network of activists, non-government organisations and propagandists who boosted Chávez’s reputation abroad.

In return, Chávez instituted a programme of financial largesse that keeps Cuba’s economy afloat to this day. Caracas ships about 130,000 barrels of oil a day to the island on preferential terms – a small part of an aid programme that remains one of the world’s largest.

The extent to which Chávez was beholden to the Cuban regime was dramatically illustrated by the way in which he dealt with the cancer that would eventually kill him last year: he trusted only the doctors whom Mr Castro recommended, and his treatment mostly took place in Havana under a veil of secrecy.

Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, has deepened Caracas’s dependency on Havana even further. As students have taken to the streets in protest against an increasingly authoritarian regime the government has responded with a brutal repression that relies on many of the tools and tactics perfected by the police state that has run Cuba for too long.

Quote of the Day: Cubans Are Hungry for Internet

It's like asking a child if he wants milk. You don't ask about something like that, you just give it.
-- Oscar, anonymous young Cuban, asked whether he wants access to the Internet, BBC, 4/15/14

Tweet of the Week: Indifferent Tourists

By Cuban blogger and democracy activist, Yusnaby Perez:

"Yupiii... Communism is so much fun." The tourists are here!

Brookings Claims Cubans Like Being Second-Class Citizens

We already know that for the Brookings Institution, human rights for the Cuban people are optional.

Now Brookings wants you to believe that Cubans are happy being second-class citizens.

No reasonable observer has been able to argue that Cuba's "new" foreign investment law is anything but a farce.

Other than a few menial tax breaks for foreign companies, the "new" foreign investment law contains the same provisions as the 1995 version, violates international labor law and reinforces the state's exclusive control over foreign trade and investment.

In other words, it continues to treat the Cuban people as second-class citizens, with absolutely no rights to own a business, receive foreign investment or even be directly hired by a non-state company. Meanwhile, those few Cubans "obedient" enough to be hired by the regime to work at a foreign company will continue to have the overwhelming majority of their salary kept by the state.

However, according to Brookings' Richard Feinberg, this is absolutely fine with Cubans. He writes:

"From my informal conversations in Havana, Cubans on the street seem to accept with enthusiasm the government’s dual message: that the new guidelines will not compromise Cuban sovereignty – a key gain of the 1959 revolution – but will encourage badly needed inflows of foreign capital and technology."

That's right -- Feinberg claims Cubans told him that they are perfectly fine with the Castro brothers continuing to enrich themselves at their cost.

It's interesting, for every other observer has written that Cubans were appalled by their continued relegation.

For example, CNN's Havana correspondent, Patrick Oppmann, tweeted:

"Hearing from Cubans who are indignant that new law allows exiles who left #Cuba right to invest but not those who stayed."

Of course, Brookings doesn't want you to hear that because they have been lobbying to allow its three Cuban-American patrons (Carlos Saladrigas, Paul Cejas and Alfie Fanjul) to invest in Castro's foreign trade monopolies and play the role of "barbarians at the gate."

That'll really win the Cuban people over.

Meanwhile, Cuban blogger Miriam Celaya wrote:

"An informal survey I conducted in recent days in Central Havana after the March 29th extraordinary session of parliament shows rejection of the new Law on Foreign Investment, almost as unanimous as the “approval” that occurred in the plenary: of a total of 50 individuals polled, 49 were critical of the law and only one was indifferent.

In fact, the issue has been present with relative frequency in many cliques not directly surveyed–uncommon in a population usually apathetic about laws -- in which the dominant tendency was to criticize various aspects of the law."

So who are the Cubans that Feinberg is talking to?

The answer is pretty clear.

Former CIA Official: Cuba Remains Primary Threat for U.S. Counterintelligence

From Texas A&M's The Batallion:

James Olson, former chief of counterintelligence at the CIA and senior lecturer at Texas A&M’s Bush School, and Michael Waguespack, former senior counterintelligence executive with the FBI, described how the U.S. faces a threat rarely seen or heard of by the public — spying.

“There are friendly countries, but there are no friendly intelligence services,” Olson said.

Olson and Waguespack described a world hidden from the public, where countries use sophisticated spy networks to steal U.S. political and technological secrets and to compromise U.S. spy networks abroad.

Olson named China, Russia and Cuba as the primary threats in U.S. counterintelligence.

“Never in my memory has our country been more in peril at home and abroad than it is right now,” Olson said.

Olson said foreign intelligence agents use a wide variety of covers to seek U.S. intelligence, from business and diplomatic covers to student identities. Olson said the Chinese, for example, have gained access to U.S. nuclear weapons data and sophisticated technology that has allowed them to upgrade their combat aircraft and submarines to levels more advanced than their domestic technology would allow.

Revisiting the Cuban Embargo

Excerpt by Michael Totten, author, journalist and contributing editor at World Affairs Journal:

For years now, the embargo has appeared to me as outdated as it has been ineffective [...]

After spending a few weeks in Cuba in October and November, however, I came home feeling less certain that the embargo was an anachronism. The ailing Fidel Castro handed power to his less ideological brother Raúl a few years ago, and the regime finally realizes what has been obvious to everyone else for what seems like forever: communism is an epic failure. Change is at last on the horizon for the island, and there’s a chance that maybe—just maybe—the embargo might help it finally arrive [...]

Any decent person should want to see political liberalization alongside economic liberalization, but a limited amount of progress can be made without it. The Chinese Communist Party figured out how to do it. China hasn’t caught up to the West, but it’s way ahead of where it was when Mao Zedong micromanaged the country into famine.

But what’s left of the US embargo might put a major crimp in Raúl Castro’s plans to partially capitalize the economy. Going full China, where Cuba produces a massive amount of merchandise for American consumers, is not an option if the embargo is not lifted first.

Sanctions against Cuba would be lifted at once if the regime were to hold just one free election and adhere to the human rights norms in our hemisphere. Since that hasn’t happened, only one conclusion is possible: Cuba’s Communist Party would rather rule alone in a poor country than share power in a prosperous one. No matter what the United States does or does not do, Cuba will underperform until that changes.

The regime does want Cuba to prosper, but within limits. Otherwise its officials wouldn’t even consider economic reform. They would just plod along North Korean–style. Therefore, keeping the US embargo in place will sooner or later force them to choose prosperity or power. They cannot have both. The Communist Party might finally cry uncle. It’s possible. If so, the sanctions will finally produce their intended effect—the democratization of Cuba. But if not, the embargo will continue looking like a spiteful anachronism that pointlessly punishes Cuban citizens who have already been punished enough by their own government.

If the US were to unilaterally lift what’s left of the embargo right now, the standard of living for the average citizen would probably go up a little as a result of Raúl’s concurrent reforms. Cuba could become in time a Caribbean China—a clear improvement over what it has been since Fidel came to power. Yet Cubans would still suffer under a power-mad police state, and the US would have exhausted its leverage for nothing.

The question at this point is who will blink first.

Deceptive Cuba Lobbying Schemes

Monday, April 14, 2014
From The Washington Free Beacon:

A former Lexington vice president [Phil Peters] reportedly took money from a business operating in Cuba to push U.S. policymakers, under the guise of an objective Cuba scholar, to ease U.S. economic sanctions against foreign corporations operating in the country.

Congress strengthened the U.S. embargo against Cuba in 1996. The Helms-Burton Act barred executives of foreign companies that “trafficked” in expropriated American property in Cuba from entering the U.S.

The law gives the president the authority to waive the travel ban if he deems it in the national interest. President Barack Obama did so most recently last year.

A number of executives from Canadian mining company Sherritt International fell under that prohibition due to its operations on land initially owned by Louisiana-based Freeport-McMoRan Inc.

“Sherritt works quietly in Washington to get its personnel off the exclusion orders,” according to a 2003 memo from Robert Muse, an attorney who represented a number of foreign businesses operating in Cuba.

Sherritt enlisted then-Lexington vice president Phil Peters in the effort, according to Muse. “[Sherritt] has given money to … Peters, to advance its interests,” he wrote. “The money to Peters goes through contributions to the Lexington Institute.”

“Because the Lexington Institute is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit, there is no public record of Sherritt’s funding. This has allowed Peters to advise and direct the [House Cuba] Working Group in ways beneficial to Sherritt while presenting himself to the Group as an objective think-tank scholar with a specialization in Cuba.”

According to the memo, Peters convinced members of the working group to visit Sherritt facilities in Cuba and to stay in a hotel partially owned by the company.

“I suspect that Phil Peters was also directly behind the Cal Dooley (D., Calif.) bill to ‘sunset’ the Helms-Burton Act,” Muse wrote.

Four months after Muse wrote that memo, Peters testified before the Senate Finance Committee that Congress should get rid of Helms-Burton.

“Congress should sunset Cuba sanctions laws that violate WTO norms by penalizing foreign nationals who do business in Cuba,” he told the committee.

“The Helms-Burton Act … create[s] needless conflict with American trade partners, and are obstacles to greater diplomatic cooperation with our allies on political issues involving Cuba.”

It is not clear whether Sherritt continued supporting Lexington. Peters did not return requests for comment. He left the group to found the Cuba Research Center last year, where he is still pushing to roll back the Helms-Burton Act.

Tweet of the Week: Cuba's No Fun for Imprisoned Journalists

By Washington Post journalist, Radley Balko: