Is Al-Qaeda Laundering Funds Through Cuba?

Saturday, January 25, 2014
Yesterday, the Castro regime decreed that it would now begin to freeze bank assets affiliated to Al-Qaeda in Cuba.

That raises important questions:

What took it so long?

Is this a tacit admission that it has been facilitating terrorist financing all along?

Has Al-Qaeda been laundering funds through Cuba's secretive banking system for the last two decades?

What about other terrorist groups?

Hadn't "experts" assured us that Castro had long given up these activities?

Where's the oversight?

Why should we trust Castro's regime now, let alone it's non-transparency?

According to the Castro regime, this new decree supposedly demonstrates its "commitment in the fight against money laundering, financing terrorism and the proliferation of weapons."

So says the regime that was recently caught red-handed lying to the international community about its illegal proliferation of weapons to North Korea.

Old habits die very hard.

Inter-American Democratic Charter, RIP

Friday, January 24, 2014
By Jose Cardenas in Foreign Policy:

RIP, Inter-American Democratic Charter

Next week, leaders from Latin American and the Caribbean will assemble in a jovial atmosphere in undemocratic Cuba to effectively bury the Inter-American Democratic Charter. That historic document, signed by all countries in the Western Hemisphere (excepting, of course, Cuba) on the fateful day of September 11, 2001, set the unprecedented standard that, "The peoples of the Americas have a right to democracy and their governments have an obligation to promote and defend it."

Today, almost 13 years later, the charter has been rendered meaningless -- and, worse, no one seems to care.

Perhaps the Organization of American States (OAS) -- which proudly features the charter on its website -- would have a comment on the utter incongruity of regional leaders supposedly obligated to promote and defend democracy summiteering in Cuba? Well, to find Secretary-General José Miguel Insulza you would have to ring him up in his hotel in Havana, as he is Gen. Raúl Castro's "Special Guest" for the summit -- the first OAS secretary-general to travel to Cuba since it was expelled from the group in 1962.

Officially, the 32 regional leaders and representatives will be attending a summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), an organization championed by late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and expressly formed to exclude the United States and Canada. Castro is winding down his year as CELAC's "President," a title awarded him despite the fact that CELAC mandates "respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms" to participate as a member.

Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez has reported how the Castro regime is preparing for its guests' arrival:

"The clandestine and officially ‘unpresentable' Havana has been warned that it must be quiet, very quiet. The beggars are being held until the Summit is over, the pimps warned to maintain control over their girls and boys, while members of the political police visit the homes of the opposition. The illegal market is also being held in check. ‘Calm down, let's have a little calm,' the police repeat in a threatening tone."

Still, Cuba's brave dissident community has announced plans for a parallel forum on democracy in Havana to run concurrent with the CELAC summit. According to the Miami Herald, however, "[b]arring last-minute surprises," summit participants "will skip the international diplomatic practice of meeting with opposition leaders or independent civil society groups during their trip to Cuba."

But as one dissident told the Herald, "My message for the visiting leaders would be that they shouldn't make themselves accomplices of the Castro brothers' dictatorship.... They should instead side with the Cuban people, so that the government gets the message that it has to change."

Unfortunately, Barack Obama's administration has undercut the U.S. position to speak out about a regional summit in Havana, since a senior State Department official just traveled there earlier this month for what he called "respectful and thoughtful" discussions with the regime.

What the travesty in Cuba demonstrates is that the cult of Hugo Chávez still hangs over the region like a plague. It is not enough anymore for the serious leaders of the region to continue to politely indulge the antics of the loudmouthed, blame-placing populists and their retrograde agendas. Wallowing in historical grievance, vitiating the Inter-American Democratic Charter, and playing to people's worst instincts may be an effective mix for maintaining political power, but it is a terrible way to develop a 21st-century economy. Other regions of the world are moving quickly and with purpose to develop their economies by embedding them in the international trading system. If the adults in Latin America don't step up soon, the region will only continue to lose valuable time to compete.

Tweet of the Day

Venezuela Embraces Cuba's Military Monopolies

From El Universal:

Venezuela embraces the Cuban state trade model

Military participation ensured the government predominance in Cuba

Top centralization. This is the core attribute of the Cuban economy: the hinge relies on the military who grab 70% of the national trade through businesses that operate as small autonomous republics within the stiff state bureaucracy.

The Cuban national armed forces (FAR) have lately striven to grasp finances and inherit power in the stead of civilians, considering that the theoretical heir apparent in the post-Castro era would be Miguel Díaz Canel, a 55-year-old civilian promoted to the rank of Vice-President of the State Council in 2013.

In Venezuela, upon the setup of the Venezuelan Foreign Trade Corporation (Venecom), the Venezuelan State may import and supply goods and inputs needed by public and private companies for production. Such macroeconomic vision was rigorously implemented in Cuba without the stake of the private sector.

Whereas private entrepreneurship is absent in the island, the Cuban State takes hold of imports and exports through several agencies, including the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Foreign Investment, and a certain number of high military officers manage over USD 11 billion of the income through 58 national corporations.

"In the Cuban case, the FAR controls important economic sectors through companies which, per each sector, have positioned allied military," highlights Cuban economist José Azel, a scholar with the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami (Iccas).

In the Cuban case, there are not private exporters, except for joint ventures with Canadian and other firms, Azel added.

All of the 58 state-run companies are in charge of exports. Meanwhile, the Cuban government centralizes profits and works on imports through government agencies. Take, for instance, 80% of foodstuffs, up to USD 1.5 billion in 2011.

The stiff state trade apparatus tracks the incoming and outgoing foreign currency. The foreign currency is apportioned through a number of government companies which move the economy and pool most of the manpower (over 80%).

The policy of price and market controls signified a social-style strategy subsequently turned into scarcity of bare essentials.

Quote of the Week: On Major Street Protest in Holguin

It’s no longer the opposition protesting. Now, it’s the people.
-- Dr. Eduardo Cardet, Christian Liberation Movement (MCL) leader, on the more than 500 Cubans who protested against the Castro regime's confiscation of goods at an open-air market, The Miami Herald, 1/22/14

Below (or here) is video footage of the protest in the town of Holguin:

More Selective Silence From Cuba's Foreign Bureaus

Kudos to the The Miami Herald and The New York Times for reporting on the protest of more than 500 Cubans in the city of Holguin, pursuant to the Castro regime's raid and confiscation of goods at an open-air market there.

Yet, it's fascinating that not a single Cuba-based foreign news bureau has covered this story.

In contrast, there's not a press release from the Castro regime -- no matter how silly -- that they won't report on.

Moreover, these foreign news bureaus never miss an opportunity to "analyze" ("criticize") and speculate on U.S. policy from Havana.

However, they tend to be curiously absent every weekend, as The Ladies in White are beaten and arrested for attending Mass, or any time there are courageous acts of defiance and opposition to the Castro dictatorship.

They can (irresponsibly) choose to ignore it, but no one can deny it -- for it was caught on video.

Hit Castro's Pocketbook to Help Free American

A Letter to the Editor of Florida Today:

Hit Cuba in pocketbook to help free American

My congratulations to Public Interest Editor Matt Reed for his recent interview with Rick Townson, author of “Hotel Fidel Castro: An American’s nine years in the Cuban gulag.”

During the interview, it was mentioned that Cuba has been holding Alan P. Gross, a Maryland-based contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development, on patently false espionage charges, in the hope he can be swapped for five confessed Cuban spies imprisoned or paroled in the United States.

As should have been clear from the beginning of this ordeal, Gross is only coming home when his Cuban captors realize the cost of continuing to hold him outweighs the benefits. The only way to make Cuba feel the cost is to hit it in the pocketbook, which means rolling back such signature administration initiatives as liberalized travel to Cuba, which puts desperately needed hard currency in the regime’s coffers. If Judy Gross’ lawyers want to take on the administration, that is where they need to focus their efforts.

The sooner the Cuban government sees fewer cash-carrying U.S. visitors to subsidize its control of the Cuban people, the sooner Alan Gross will be reunited with his suffering family.

The Good (and Gullible) Bob Graham

Wednesday, January 22, 2014
Former Florida Governor and U.S. Senator Bob Graham (D) is a good man.

But good men can be gullible -- and sometimes, very gullible.

As we noted last week, Graham recently visited Cuba with Castro regime admirer Julia Sweig, pursuant to his concerns about Cuba's off-shore drilling projects.

Problem is Cuba's decade-long, off-shore, oil pipe-dream came to an end last year.

Not so, says Graham.  

The Cubans are still pursuing more off-shore drilling.

Never mind that it's commercially and logistically implausible.

So how can Graham be so sure?

Well, because the Cubans told him so.

According to Graham, the Castro regime told him that they were planning future off-shore drilling endeavors with Brazilian and Angolan companies.

That makes perfect (non)sense.

In 2011, Brazil's Petrobras was the first foreign company to publicly abandon Cuba's off-shore oil pipe-dream due to "poor prospects" and it being commercially inviable.

What has changed since then?

Nothing. Other than the "poor prospects" being poorer now, and Petrobras being even more troubled and debt-laden.

Meanwhile, Angola's Sonangol literally can't keep up with drilling for the vast proven resources off its own coasts.

So they are going to sacrifice proven production in its own backyard to pursue Castro's far-away, complex and expensive pipe-dream?

Give me a break.

Note to Graham: In 2006 and 2008, then Vice-President Dick Cheney and other GOP leaders looked foolish after arguing that the Chinese were drilling in Cuban waters 50 miles off Florida's coasts. After all, this had been reported in the media based on statements by the Castro regime.  It was untrue.

Don't fall into the same trap.

A Glitch in the Engagement Narrative

This week, Human Rights Watch released its 2014 World Report.

The following two headlines grabbed our attention, as we'd been told by "experts" that the China and Vietnam models of U.S. engagement and economic "reforms" inevitably lead to political reforms. 

Except the opposite is happening.

Here are the headlines:

Vietnam: Communist Party Tightens Grip

Activists were increasingly targeted by the Vietnamese authorities in 2013, worsening a trend of politically motivated convictions against peaceful critics.

China: New Leaders Fail to Embrace Genuine Reforms

The Chinese Communist Party reinforced its monopoly on power in 2013 through tough new measures and hardline rhetoric, dashing hopes that the country’s new leadership would engage in deep systemic reforms to improve human rights and strengthen the rule of law.

A Sad Day for Democracy in Latin America

By Andres Oppenheimer in The Miami Herald:

Latin leaders to applaud Cuba’s dictatorship

What’s most shameful about Latin American presidents’ scheduled visit to Cuba for a regional summit Tuesday is not that they will visit one of the world’s last family dictatorships, but that they most likely won’t even set foot at a parallel summit that the island’s peaceful opposition plans to hold at the same time.

Barring last-minute surprises, the 32 Latin American and Caribbean heads of state and government representatives scheduled to attend the Tuesday-Thursday summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) in Havana will skip the international diplomatic practice of meeting with opposition leaders or independent civil society groups during their trip to Cuba.

So far, not even Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, who wants to be seen as part of a new generation of leaders of his once-authoritarian Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) has plans to meet with any member of the peaceful opposition while in Cuba.

By comparison, former President Vicente Fox and his foreign minister, Jorge Castañeda, met with peaceful opposition leaders during a visit to Cuba in 2002, and former Mexican Foreign Minister Rosario Green met with Cuban dissidents during a summit in Havana in 1999. And the Castro brothers meet with leftist opposition leaders whenever they go to summits in countries that are not ruled by sympathetic leaders.

In a Jan. 18 interview with the Spanish daily El Pais, Mexican Foreign Minister José Antonio Meade said that “we want to develop a very close relationship with Cuba, of full support to its economic updating strategy.”

Asked whether Peña Nieto will meet with Cuban dissidents during his visit, Meade said, “President Peña Nieto will participate in Cuba in an agenda related to the CELAC summit. He has accepted an official visit, and that’s the framework in which it will develop.” Translation: He won’t.

Organization of American States Secretary General José Miguel Insulza, who is also scheduled to attend the summit as an observer, did not respond at the time of this writing to a call about whether he will meet with opposition leaders.

Guillermo Fariñas, one of the Cuban opposition leaders planning to attend the counter-summit in Havana, told me in a telephone interview from Cuba earlier this week that Cuba’s secret police has already paid a visit to several dissidents, including blogger Yoanni Sanchez, warning them not to hold the opposition summit.

“Whether or not Cuba’s repressive regime allows a parallel summit of the peaceful opposition, it will pay a political price for it,” Fariñas told me.

“If they allow it, the international media will hear from voices other than the official ones, and we will tell them that there’s no democracy in Cuba,” Fariñas said. “And if they don’t allow it, it will show that despite its propaganda efforts claiming that there are changes going on in Cuba, the reality is that there’s a wave of repression.”

The likelihood that the visiting leaders won’t meet with the opposition makes them “accomplices with the only dictatorship in Latin America,” Fariñas said. “History shows that when countries make goodwill gestures toward this kind of dictatorships, the latter use them to strengthen themselves diplomatically, politically, economically and militarily.”

“My message for the visiting leaders would be that they shouldn’t make themselves accomplices of the Castro brothers’ dictatorship,” Fariñas concluded. “They should instead side with the Cuban people, so that the government gets the message that it has to change.”

My opinion: I agree. It’s already a joke that Latin America’s democratically elected presidents have picked the region’s only military dictator — which is what Gen. Raúl Castro is, by any dictionary’s definition — as head of CELAC, even if the group that has among its top goals “promoting democracy’’ in the region.

But going to a CELAC summit in Cuba without meeting with any opposition representatives amounts to giving a propaganda boost to a totalitarian regime, while spurning the island’s peaceful opposition. Many of us who opposed Latin America’s military dictatorships in the 1970s still remember how these international summits help legitimize totalitarian regimes.

Of course, some of the visiting presidents will claim that they can’t meet with dissidents on an official visit because they have to respect the “self-determination of the Cuban people.” That’s baloney! What “self-determination” are they talking about, when the Cuban people haven’t had a chance to vote freely to determine their own future in 55 years?

If visiting leaders don’t meet any members of the peaceful opposition while in Havana, it will be a sad day for the history of democracy in Latin America.

Quote(s) of the Day

From Miami New Times' interview with Cuban-American hip-hop group, Problem Kids:

Does the band's Cuban heritage come up on the new album?

Yeah, we have a couple new songs about it. One is about Fidel Castro and how he treats the Cuban people. The world doesn't see it, but it's our duty as Cuban Americans to let the world know exactly how Cuba really is.

Like what?

Bro, it's just very poor. And if you're not for the government, there's not much you can do out there. A doctor makes the same as a bus driver. The currency is worthless. I just went on a mission to work at a school. A can of Coke is $2, and a family makes like $20 a month. A can of Coke is a privilege. Here, we take it for granted. But there they have no rights.

What else makes you mad?

If somebody builds a school, the government can go and take it without hesitation. They can take anything from anybody at any time. People go there on vacation while the government is beating women. It's a beautiful country, but people only see the nice beaches, the old cars, and the pretty women on TV. They're stuck on an island.

How was the music?

They have no musical freedom. If it's not what the government deems right, they put you in jail. It's a touchy subject. A bunch of artists have been locked up with no food and are dying in jail for trying to achieve the freedom of speech that we Americans take for granted.

People do escape, though.

Yeah, and it's infuriating that they have to. But at the same time, it feels good that my people came here with literally nothing but the clothes on their back and made something of themselves. That's why our music's not just about material things. It is what it is so that people can appreciate the struggle and connect.

Lessons from an American in Castro's Gulag

Tuesday, January 21, 2014
If you have any doubt that Castro's hostage-taking of American development worker Alan Gross was premeditated, read the following interview carefully.

Florida Today's Matt Reed sat down with onetime smuggler Rick Townson, who has published a book about his nine-year imprisonment in Cuba's gulags:

Lessons from Castro's Gulag

Rick Townson thought he might die in the Cuban prisons where he was held for drug smuggling and kept as a political bargaining chip.

Townson now lives on a sailboat in Indian Harbour Beach and has published a book about his ordeal, “Hotel Fidel Castro: An American’s nine years in the Cuban gulag.”

Townson believes he owes his release to the misfortune of Alan Gross, a U.S. aid contractor arrested for spying and sentenced in 2011 to 15 years.

His story begins in 2002. Then a cab driver in Key West, Townson was persuaded by friends to join a boat trip to Jamaica to smuggle marijuana. The return voyage went badly, and he found himself handcuffed and exhausted at a marina in Havana as Cuban authorities seized 650 pounds of pot.

Q,. How does American justice compare to the system you encountered?

Townson: Here, there’s a sense of fairness in the courts and you can get an attorney to protect your rights.

Down there, you’re locked in a box that can barely fit four grown men. There’s a hole in the floor for a toilet. Our bunks were solid steel, with a thin layer of felt for a mattress. Poor-quality food. I’ve never been so cold as that January in Cuba.

They just wait until you’re ready to spill your guts.

Q. Did you get a trial?

Townson: In Cuba, they don’t even tell you what you’re charged with until one month before you go to court. They were already handing out sentences to the other men there, mostly on trumped-up charges. I prepared a plea for mercy, and they took off five years for my eloquent speech.

Q. So instead of earning a quick $100,000 for you and a girlfriend’s retirement, you end up sentenced to 25 years for trafficking. Why do you call it a “gulag?”

Townson: I was sent to a camp in the middle of a sugarcane field. It was for nothing but foreigners, about 70 or 80 of us. Everyone was there for smuggling or petty crime. No one was stupid enough to commit murder or assault in Cuba.

I realized quickly they had collected five Americans: myself, the captain of my boat and three others. It matched the number of Cuban spies who had been captured and convicted in the United States back in 1998.

European countries that had given Castro aid began criticizing him for arresting his citizens for their political views. Quickly, he started arresting men from those countries. A Belgian newspaper would rake him over the coals. And three weeks later, here come three Belgian guys, looking bewildered.

Castro was using us in a game of trying to trade Mickey Mouse criminals for the “five Cuban heroes,” as they call them. There were never more than five Americans.

Q. What were your days like?

Townson: It was a certain level of psychological torture the whole time. Every morning when they would count us, they would give us these communist speeches about the glory of the revolution. We would have to stand and listen to them from all sorts of government officials.

If you show any emotion or anger, they send you to what we nicknamed the Big House — a four-building, four-story prison that holds 10,000 prisoners. No one wanted to go there. If you bloodied someone’s nose, you’d have to serve an extra five years.

There were rumors that there was going to be a big foreign-prisoner release, but that didn’t happen. I believe it was because President George Bush was re-elected and Fidel Castro didn’t expect that.

About six years in, I had health problems and didn’t think I was going to make it any longer.

Q. Why were you released after nine years?

Townson: Alan Gross. Castro finally got a prisoner that the U.S. government cared about.

I called the U.S. Interests Section in Havana one day to ask about some emails I had expected, and they said, “Can you call back? We have a crisis. A U.S. diplomat has been arrested.”

I listened to the BBC on the shortwave radio, and found out about Gross, who wasn’t really a diplomat.

Fidel Castro will take his last breaths with Alan Gross in prison unless he gets his heroes back.

Q. Any advice for Americans who might travel there?

Townson: It’s risky. I would tell anyone, “Don’t go.”

But in the long term, Americans need to see how an industrious people under that system live in such abject poverty.

No Transparency in M&T Bank's Cuba Accounts

Why such lack of transparency from M&T Bank and the State Department in dealing with this issue?

(In contrast, we wouldn't expect anything other than secrecy from Cuba's dictatorship.)

From The Buffalo News:

There’s some intrigue involving M&T Bank Corp. and its banking relationship with diplomatic missions in the United States, including Cuba’s. And the issue could resurface a month from now.

To review, the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 26 said it was suspending consular services in the United States – such as visa and passport applications – because it said M&T was closing its bank accounts. The Cuban officials said M&T would “no longer provide banking services” to foreign missions and had given notice to that effect back on July 12.

The Cuban officials said they were having trouble finding a replacement bank, even with the U.S. State Department’s help. The story attracted national media attention because of the potential impact on travelers between the United States and Cuba, and the history of political tensions between the two countries.

On Dec. 9 – about two weeks after the announcement – Cuban officials said M&T had provided notice on Dec. 6 of a deadline extension. The Cuban officials said the bank specified it “will continue receiving deposits from consular services” until Feb. 17, and would not close the accounts until March 1. A reason for the extension was not given.

The deadline extension raised some interesting questions that The Buffalo News has been trying to answer, without success:

• How did Buffalo-based M&T come to have business with diplomatic missions in the United States in the first place, and how many other countries’ missions was it providing services to? M&T has declined to talk about that line of business in general, or the Cuba matter in particular.

• What prompted M&T to extend its deadline for closing the Cuban accounts, after the announcement by the Cuban officials in late November? The State Department acknowledged it has been trying to help the Cuban officials line up a new bank. But a State Department spokeswoman did not answer a specific question about whether the department played a role in M&T’s decision to grant the extension.

Cuban officials in Washington have not responded to requests to comment on this issue. The last time they posted a message on their website about their efforts to line up a new bank was Dec. 9.

On Castro's Dual Currency Scheme (Scam)

Justin Rohrlich has a thoughtful article in Vice about his experience with Castro's dual currency system.

Here's an excerpt:

Millions of Cubans May Lose Their Life Savings This Year

"Fucking cops in Cuba are always busting everybody’s balls."

A man mutters this to me in perfect English as I walk down the once-elegant Calle 23 in downtown Havana. He is the very last customer waiting in a Kafkaesque line that wraps around the block and doubles back on itself twice. The afternoon is stiflingly hot. Two police officers are hassling a nearby teenager because he took off his T-shirt.

"But that’s why things here are so safe," the man continues, much louder this time. I’m confused until I realize another cop is standing behind me. He wandered over after spotting a Cuban nacional talking to me—an American gusano. "Very safe, very safe. You know, because the police do such a good job!"

The officer gives him a long, hard stare, then wanders away. I take my place at the end of the line next to my new buddy, who says his name is Yaniel.

Along with several hundred other Cubans, Yaniel and I are waiting to get into Coppelia, the iconic ice cream parlor created in 1966 by order of Fidel Castro and named for his then-secretary’s favorite ballet. Located across the street from the Habana Libre hotel, a one-time Hilton from which Fidel directed the revolution for three months in 1959, Coppelia has been called the "ultimate democratic ice cream emporium." But, as I quickly find out, that isn’t exactly true.

When the Cubans around me spot a foreign tourist standing with them in the endless queue, they’re quick to inform me that the line we're in is for people using Cuban Pesos—which is to say, most Cubans. As a woman in curlers and a tube top explains, people holding Convertible Pesos, the country’s other currency, aren’t forced to endure such Socialist indignities. Foreigners, like me, carry Convertible Pesos.

She then points to a tiny building surrounded by a well-kept patio and leafy trees offering respite from the blistering mid-summer sun. There is no line at this Coppelia stand and, sitting in the shade are several happy, relaxed-looking people, enjoying their ice cream.

This, in a nutshell, is what having two currencies has done to the already dysfunctional Cuban economy for the past 20 years. The good news is that the government is finally attempting to fix it. The bad news is that millions of Cubans could lose their life savings in the process [...]

In Cuba, economic decisions aren’t made based on supply and demand, and "the market" as Adam Smith knows it does not exist. Instead, reforms are made with the stroke of a pen, so the government could simply, say, change the exchange rate between the CUC and the CUP from 24-to-1 to 12-to-1. This would instantly halve the life savings of countless Cubans who’ve spent two decades socking away CUCs, to say nothing of the Zimbabwe-like inflation that could strike the economy after such a move.

Or, the government may just take everyone’s savings outright.

"My guess is that when the government does the reform, it will expropriate some part of the population’s wealth accumulated in CUCs," says economist Daron Acemoglu, co-author of Why Nations Fail.

Raúl Castro has declared that the transition will not hurt holders of either CUCs or CUPs. But the concept of protecting individual wealth has no place in Cuba—a fact specifically stated in the Cuban Communist Party's Lineamientos (Guidelines). And as Mauricio Claver-Carone, executive director of the right-leaning Cuba Democracy Advocates points out, the Cuban government could really use the money.

"The Castro regime seems to undertake these currency operations when it's suffering from a hard-currency crisis," he explains. "The anticipated currency swap is simply another episode in a long series of asset confiscations by the Castro regime."

Expropriations and nationalizations of private property have occurred repeatedly since the beginning of the Castro era. People leaving the island in the early days of post-Revolutionary Cuba were forced to give up their property and assets in addition to their rights as citizens. Those who stayed were soon relieved of 42 percent of their wealth in a top-down currency revaluation. In recent years, the CUC has been devalued in pursuit of stabilizing government debt, and hard currency accounts have been periodically frozen and restricted when it has suited the regime.

The economy of Cuba’s main benefactor, Venezuela, is thought by many economists to be in the midst of collapse. Just as the Soviet Union's was 20 years ago.

Read the whole thing here.

Panama: Cuba Refuses to Cooperate on Weapons Smuggling Inquiry

From The Miami Herald:

Panama accuses Cuba of refusing to cooperate 

Panama will send a low-ranking official to a summit of hemispheric leaders in Cuba to signal its displeasure with Havana’s refusal to cooperate over a shipment of Cuban weapons seized aboard a North Korean freighter, sources said Tuesday.

Floreal Garrido, the fifth-ranking official in Panama’s Foreign Ministry, will represent his government at the Summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), a knowledgeable ministry source told El Nuevo Herald on Tuesday.

Garrido, whose official title is Director of Foreign Policy, will be attending a Jan. 28-29 gathering where many of the 33 other countries’ delegations will be led by presidents, prime ministers or foreign ministers. The U.S. and Canada are not part of CELAC.

“We will send them our fifth-ranking official to Havana to show our displeasure with their total lack of cooperation on the matter of the North Korean ship,” said the source, who asked to remain anonymous.

Relations between the governments of Panama and Cuba cooled significantly after Panama authorities seized the North Korean ship loaded with Cuban weapons in July as it prepared to cross the Panama Canal westbound from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

Investigators for the U.N. Security Council have been trying to determine whether the weapons — 420 tons of anti-aircraft radars and missile parts, MiG jets, motors for the warplanes and other munitions — violated the arms embargoes slapped on North Korea for its nuclear weapons and missile development programs.

The weapons shipment was hidden under 10,000 tons of Cuban sugar that had to be unloaded by hand after the crew of the bulk carrier Chong Chon Gang sabotaged the ship’s loading cranes. The 508-foot ship, crew, sugar and weapons remain in Panama.

The Foreign Ministry official in Panama said the Cuban government has not replied to any of Panama’s requests for information on the sugar or the weapons and why they were being shipped to a country under a U.N. arms embargo.

Dilma Bilking Taxpayers for Castro's Interests

Brazilians are weary of former President Lula da Silva and current President Dilma Rousseff placing their ideological interests first -- and consequently, bilking taxpayer money in favor of Cuba's Castro regime.

From Brazil's Diario do Poder:

Cuba First

I hate doing simulations or making assumptions from facts that could be taken seriously if we had a Congress, rather than the brothel we effectively have. "Loans" like those made by Lula to Cuba and Angola, where two dictators disguised as presidents reign with absolutism, should be the subject of impeachment and then heavy prison sentences against these disgusting men.

Just take a look: Cuba doesn't even produce 0.1% of what Brazil does. Yet, it now has a port capable of offloading products exported through the port of Santos with capacity to spare. Its infrastructure is modern and extensive, while our terminals are archaic and obsolete. Our largest export terminal, the Port of Santos, has been silted for decades and nobody takes action. Half of the money stupidly deposited in to the Cuban coffers, which will never return to our National Treasury, would be enough to leave the Port of Santos in an extraordinary condition. Meanwhile, nothing is being done here. Only 7% of the U.S. $218 million set aside to be invested in Brazilian terminals in 2013, or $15.5 million, have been expended.

Where was the biggest Brazilian investment in ports in recent years made? In Cuba. When the Cubans announced an "opening" for foreign investment in Cuba, and foreign companies, knowing that it would be impossible for them to control 100% of their investment on the island, they associated themselves with high level military officer to be able to continue to operate.

Today, anyone taking the risk of investing in Cuba will have to divide his capital with these uniformed crooks who control 80% of Cuba's GDP. This gang of military officers maintain an office here in Brazil, where else? In Jardins, the most chic neighborhood of São Paulo, where Brasraf Commercial Import and Export Ltda., a subsidiary of Almacenes, oversees trade between Brazil and Cuba from a luxurious office located there. And speaking of that, the Cubans are already giving thought to a new "secret" and out-of-sight "loan" for the coming months with the purpose of creating an industrial zone around the Port of Mariel, at our expense.

At the end of the month, Rousseff will embark for Cuba to inaugurate the great work of Lula, the man whose government executed that contract so prejudicial to Brazil. Here, that shameless man turned São Francisco over to the cockroaches, paralyzed the Trans-Northeastern railway and slow-walked the Abreu e Lima refinery, while in Cuba the inauguration of the port will now take place in late January.

In 2014, Brazil will lose 22% of the wealth generated by the biggest harvest of soybeans in history, 55 million tons. The reason for this is the clogged up condition of Brazil's port infrastructure and the loss of cargoes in truck accidents due to our terrible highways. In Angola, nobody knows where the over U.S. $5 billion donated by BNDES by express order of the scoundrel Caetés were employed. What is known is that nothing can be disclosed before 2027, it's a secret matter, according to Fernando Pimentel ,who acted outside the law to grant loans in secrecy. Worst of all is that no one goes to court against this chicanery done with the hard-earned money of Brazilian taxpayers.

Revolting and disgusting!

Welcome to Mariel, Castro's Latest Ruse

The Guardian has a story today entitled, "Welcome to Mariel, Cuba – the new port giving berth to hope."

Here's the gist:

"[C]uba is betting its economic future on one of the biggest development projects in its history – a special free-trade zone that aims to attract foreign investment and, more hopefully, US support, with modern facilities and market-friendly tax breaks.... [O]ne thing is clear: the policy change that could make the biggest difference to Cuba will be decided not in Havana or Mariel, but in Washington."

In other words, the Mariel Special Economic Zone ("Mariel") is simply Castro's latest ruse to have U.S. sanctions lifted.

This is similar to Castro's recent "oil ruse":

Over the last decade, the Castro regime executed its great "oil ruse" -- whereby it seduced a handful of foreign oil companies to purchase concessions and drill for supposed oil riches off Cuba's shores.

Of course, this was never commercially viable, for even if oil was found (which was a long-shot), it would have been too expensive to extract, transport and refine (thanks to U.S. sanctions).

And thus, the intense lobbying campaign unleashed by the regime's D.C. advocates to lift U.S. sanctions based on "lost commercial opportunities"; "environmental concerns"; the "red scare" of China allegedly drilling 45 miles from our shores, etc.

The goal was never about energy production, but to have U.S. sanctions lifted.

None of this materialized and Castro's "oil ruse" is over (despite former U.S. Senator Bob Graham's recent gullibility).

Now Castro's new ruse is Mariel.

With the Mariel, Castro seeks to lure foreign investors to take advantage of Cuban slave labor.

The model for this project is North Korea's Kaesong Industrial Park, a special administrative industrial region of its totalitarian brethren, whereby South Korean companies employ cheap North Korean labor (rather than relocating to China), while providing the Kim regime with an important source of foreign currency.

The difference is that the market for Kaesong's products is the thriving South Korean economy.

But what will be the market for Mariel's products?

Jamaica?  Haiti?  The Bahamas?

Definitely not Cuba, with its dismal purchasing power.

The answer is: the U.S.

(Moreover, what ship is going to want to dock in Mariel, in order to then be prohibited -- per U.S. sanctions -- from entering a U.S. port for 180 days?)

As The Guardian article noted -- for Mariel to be commercially viable, the U.S. would have to lift sanctions and open its huge consumer market to Cuban slave labor.

Castro's Brazilian financiers have also admitted to this.

So, once again, the lobbying campaign to lift U.S. sanctions will surely ramp up -- for the sake of Castro's economic rescue.

Quote of the Day: EU Common Position to Remain

Monday, January 20, 2014
At no time have we spoken about repealing the Common Position.  What we've discussed is giving the [European] Commission a mandate so that it can explore an association agreement with Cuba -- an association agreement that must have the respect for human rights as its central element. In the meantime, the Common Position will continue to remain in effect as it has been. 
-- Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo, Spain's Foreign Minister, clarifying recent media reports that the European Union sought to repeal its Common Position toward Cuba, EFE, 1/20/14

Upping the Ransom Ante

Today's news out of North Korea makes it indisputable that the Kim and Castro regimes counsel each other on their hostage-taking tactics.

As we've noted before, the exactitude of scenarios is really quite striking.

We wonder whether U.S. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) will now lobby the Obama Administration to give the Kim regime any ransom (concession) it wants -- or whether he reserves such deference for Castro's regime?

From today's AP:

An American missionary who has been jailed in North Korea for more than a year appeared before reporters Monday and appealed to the U.S. government to do its best to secure his release.

The missionary, Kenneth Bae, made the comments at what he called a press conference held at his own request. He was under guard during the appearance. It is not unusual for prisoners in North Korea to say after their release that they spoke in similar situations under duress.

Wearing a gray cap and inmate's uniform with the number 103 on his chest, Bae spoke in Korean during the brief appearance, which was attended by The Associated Press and a few other foreign media in Pyongyang.

"I believe that my problem can be solved by close cooperation and agreement between the American government and the government of this country," he said.

Bae, the longest-serving American detainee in North Korea in recent years, expressed hope that the U.S. government will do its best to secure his release. He said he has not been treated badly in confinement.

From last month's AP:

An American man who is marking four years in prison in Cuba has written a letter to President Barack Obama asking the president to get personally involved in securing his release.

Alan Gross was arrested four years ago Tuesday while working covertly in the Communist-run country to set up Internet access for the island's small Jewish community, access that bypassed local restrictions. At the time, he was working as a subcontractor for the U.S. government's U.S. Agency for International Development, which works to promote democracy on the island.

"It is clear to me, Mr. President, that only with your personal involvement can my release be secured," Gross wrote in a letter made public through a spokeswoman.

"With the utmost respect, Mr. President, I fear that my government - the very government I was serving when I began this nightmare - has abandoned me. Officials in your administration have expressed sympathy and called for my unconditional release, and I very much appreciate that. But it has not brought me home," he wrote.

Are Sanctions a Catalyst of Castro's "Reforms"?

Sunday, January 19, 2014
In the mid-90's, a courageous Argentine journalist dared to unmask dictator Fidel Castro through some tough questions.

Castro, not used to being held accountable by independent journalists, was speechless and razzled.

See the video below (or here).

Among his ramblings, Castro explained how his regime was forced to adopt some capitalist measures in order to defend the socialist model (pursuant to the collapse of the Soviet bloc) and overcome the obstacles placed by the U.S.'s "blockade."

That poses an interesting juxtaposition for opponents of U.S. sanctions.

If the economic "reforms" that anti-sanctions advocates herald are being forced by sanctions -- then why do they oppose sanctions?

Shouldn't they support maintaining and even strengthening sanctions as a catalyst for further "reforms"?

For Fidel and Raul surely haven't embarked upon them out of the goodness of their hearts.

A Principled Mayor

Excerpts from The Tampa Bay Times:

More and more of Tampa goes to Cuba, but not Bob Buckhorn

When the University of Tampa baseball team flies home Sunday, it will be the latest group from here to travel to Cuba in the past three years.

The Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce went, taking airport chief Joe Lopano and University of South Florida president Judy Genshaft. Most of the Tampa City Council has gone, as has a Florida Orchestra quintet.

So has U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa. On returning, she said, "Cuba is changing" and called for Washington to normalize relations, lift travel restrictions and end the 52-year-old trade embargo on Cuba.

But there's one Tampa leader you won't see on a flight to Havana any time soon: Mayor Bob Buckhorn (D).

"I'm not averse to business leaders going," he said, but "until that embargo is lifted, I don't think it's an appropriate place for the mayor of Tampa to be."

The reason, he said, is "first and foremost out of respect for people in this community who lost everything to (Fidel) Castro, some of whom spent years in Castro's prisons."

The embargo hasn't worked, Buckhorn said, but political changes must come to Cuba first.

"Implementation of democratic elections, more freedom, more ability to dissent, more religious freedoms will have to occur before the president or the Congress seriously takes a look at lifting that embargo," he said.

This puts Buckhorn slightly out of synch with a growing number of Tampa officials who support building relationships in Cuba to position the bay area for the day that trade and travel restrictions are lifted [...]

Whatever his political future, Buckhorn's Cuba politics are nothing new.

In the mid 1990s, he flew with the group Brothers to the Rescue as it searched for Cuban rafters trying to escape to Florida.

In 2002, as a council member (and candidate for mayor), he criticized then-Mayor Dick Greco for going on an unannounced trip to Havana and meeting with Castro.

Greco said he didn't go to pursue trade, but in the hope of starting "any kind of dialogue that would start (Cuba) on the trail toward a more democratic society."

In 2012, on the 51st anniversary of the Bay of Pigs invasion, Buckhorn hosted a City Hall ceremony honoring those who fought, including retired U.S. Army Col. Orlando Rodriguez of Tampa.

And on Sunday, Buckhorn and Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado are scheduled to honor longtime anti-Castro activist Mario Quevedo at the Cuban Civic Club.

During the mayor's race in 2011, activists reached out to Cuban-American voters, reminding them how Greco met with Castro [...]

As mayor, [Buckhorn said] he wanted first to grow trade with Latin America's bigger, more established economies.

That's where the money is, and that's still his focus, he said.

"My time is far better spent in Panama trying to attract Copa Airlines to establish flights, doing the same in Colombia with Avianca," he said. "There is little value to me to go to Cuba."