Ukraine Angle to Cuba's "Purchase" of Russian Antonov Planes

Saturday, March 29, 2014
The timing of this "purchase" is particularly interesting, as Antonov is a Russian state-owned company, whose headquarters and main industrial grounds are located in the Ukraine (near Kiev).

The meeting with Fidel Castro's son took place at Antonov's regional plant in Voronezh, 50 miles north of the Ukrainian border, where Putin is building up Russian tanks and troops.

During his visit, Castro cynically stated that "Russia is not alone" and that his family's regime "felt specially proud to stand together with his [Russian] brothers as they face threats and sanctions."

This visit and "purchase" took place as the U.N. voted to condemn Russia's annexation of the Crimea.

Obviously, it'd be very interesting to learn the actual terms of this deal.

From RIA Novosti:

Cuba To Buy Russian Antonov Regional Jets

Russia's Voronezh Aircraft Plant will supply Cuba with Antonov An-148 regional jets, officials in the region where the factory is based said Friday.

"Today's decision on An-148 supplies to Cuba opens a new market for us," Alexei Gordeyev, the acting Governor of Voronezh Region said after a meeting with senior Cuban officials, including scientific advisor Fidel Castro Diaz-Balart and the country's ambassador to Russia, Emilio Lozada García.

Russian and Cuban authorities discussed other potential areas for increased bilateral cooperation during the meeting, including in healthcare and education.


Should Castro's Elite Receive U.S. Visas?

This week, The Miami Herald reported on the offspring of senior Cuban regime officials living or visiting the U.S.

There's a fine line to be drawn here.

Those who have have genuinely defected to the U.S. and are living here should be welcome.

However, it's an insult for the U.S. to give visas to the offspring of Cuba's worst human rights abusers -- to party and shop in the U.S. -- and then return to Cuba. 

It's also an insult for the offspring of Cuba's worst human rights abusers to be based in the U.S. and serving as business conduits for the island.

It's not just insulting, it's demoralizing to the courageous efforts of Cuba's democracy activists and contrary to the goals of U.S. policy (as stated in law).

Just imagine how the victims, or the families of those killed, must feel.

From The Miami Herald:

Son of Cuban Interior Minister lives in Miami 

The son of Cuban Interior Minister Abelardo Colomé Ibarra, one of the island’s most powerful and feared figures, has defected and joined the long list of relatives of top government officials now living in South Florida, according to a Miami blog.

Josué Colomé Vázquez crossed from Mexico to Texas and arrived in Miami one month ago, according to the list published by Cuba al Descubierto — Cuba Uncovered — a blog that focuses on sensitive information about the island and its ruling class.

His Facebook page includes recent photos showing him in a bathing suit on Miami Beach and in a gym, his new car, two pairs of fancy sneakers, a lobster dinner and a gathering with friends at a Hooters restaurant.

Also on the list compiled by blog editor Luis Dominguez are the sons of three senior Cuba figures — a former intelligence chief, a former top diplomat in Washington and the godfather of virtually all of Latin America’s leftist guerrillas.

Dominguez said he has been gathering the names for months and published them late Wednesday to highlight the case of one of his cousins, a Cuban doctor who defected while working in Venezuela last year but who has been repeatedly denied a U.S. visa.

“Where is the justice, morality and national security when visas are issued to members of the Castro nomenklatura (ruling class) and are denied to Cuban doctors in other countries,” he wrote in a blog post.

His cousin was denied a U.S. visa because she could not prove she was in Venezuela as part of an official Cuban program, Dominguez added, “an absurd argument because it is known that there is no other way for a Cuban doctor to go there.”

Parts of Dominguez’s list could not be independently confirmed. But his previous reports, including one last week on the promotion to the rank of brigadier general of a son-in-law of Cuban ruler Raúl Castro, have proven to be reliable.

Dominguez said Josué Colomé Vázquez left Cuba for Cancún, Mexico, crossed the border into Texas and flew last month to Miami to reunite with his mother, Suri Vázquez Ruiz, a former wife of Colomé Ibarra. The son could not be reached for comment.

Colomé Ibarra, 75, is vice president of the Council of State, and as interior minister, he is in charge of national security, from the Directorate of Intelligence to the police and fire departments. A veteran of Fidel Castro’s revolution, he is nicknamed “Furry.”

Also on the bloggers’ list is Pablo Ernesto Remírez de Estenoz Semidey, 24, who arrived in Miami in August. His father is Fernando Remírez de Estenoz, former deputy foreign minister and head of Cuba’s diplomatic mission in Washington from 1995 to 2001.

The father was fired in 2009, along with Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque and Carlos Lage, then vice president and executive secretary of the Council of Ministers, amid accusations by Fidel Castro that they were too ambitious for power.

Dominguez’s list also said that Alejandro Luis Barreiro Agrelo, 25, the son of former Directorate of Intelligence chief Gen. Luis Barreiro Carames, arrived in Miami in September 2012. The son worked in Miami with John Henry Cabañas, a pro-Castro businessman whose company used to charter flights to Cuba, the list noted.

The father was fired from the Intelligence Directorate in 1989 amid the case against Gen. Arnaldo Ochoa, Cuba’s top combat veteran, executed by firing squad on charges of drug trafficking.

Dominguez’s list also included two offspring of the late Manuel Piñeiro Losada, known as “Redbeard” and the notorious chief of Cuba’s campaign to train and arm Latin American and Middle Eastern guerrillas in the ’60s and ’70s.

Manuel Kahlil Piñeiro Burdsall, 56, now lives in the United States, according to the list. And Camila Piñeiro Harnecker, 34, is a Cuban economist who has participated in several public conferences in the United States and is married to a U.S. citizen.

Division Gen. Guillermo Rodríguez del Pozo, a top-ranking veteran of Castro’s guerrillas, has two grandchildren in the United States: Juan Carlos Sarol Rodríguez and Ana Cristina Sarol Rodríguez. Their uncle is Brig. Gen. Luis Alberto Rodríguez López-Calleja, married to Raúl Castro’s eldest daughter and head of military enterprises.

Also living in Miami, according to the list, is Ramón Castro Rodríguez, son of Ramón Castro Ruz, the oldest brother of Fidel and Raúl Castro.

South Florida has been rife with reports of relatives of senior Cuban government officials, especially the young, moving to South Florida to escape the stagnant economy, the communist system or other issues. Most try to keep a low profile once they arrive.

Pedro Alvarez, former head of Alimport, the Cuban government agency that imports more than $1.5 billion worth of food products each year, turned up in Tampa in late 2011, shortly after Cuban authorities began investigating him on suspicion of corruption.

Glenda Murillo Díaz, daughter of Marino Murillo, vice president of the Council of Ministers and enforcer of the economic reforms pushed by Raúl Castro, defected in August 2012 and also settled in Tampa with her husband.

Under migration reforms adopted by Havana early last year, Cubans can now obtain U.S. residence after spending one year and one day in the United States, then return to the island to retain their residency there — and from then on travel back and forth at will.

Quote of the Day: On Cuba's "New" Foreign Investment Law

Friday, March 28, 2014
What they've announced they'd do, does it sound progressive? Yes. Does it have the potential to be progressive? Yes. But Cuba's had a foreign investment law since the 1980s. And one of the problems has been that when the government feels that they've made enough progress, they reverse course and try to take back or eliminate the opportunities that they've presented to companies. Any changes announced now have to be looked at in that historical context.
-- John Kavulich, a senior policy advisor at the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, CNBC, 3/28/14

Data Trumps (Theoretical) Danger of a Cuban Collapse

Anticipating an end to Venezuela's $9 billion yearly subsidy to the Castro regime, Johns Hopkins Professor Daniel Serwer, argued yesterday in Politico that the U.S. has more to fear from a collapse of Cuba's dictatorship than from its survival.

He theorizes:

"A cut-off of money from Venezuela, the demise of the Castros or an international recession could precipitate collapse and set off a chaotic transition that spews people, drugs and arms throughout the Caribbean... Preventing a Cuban collapse, not causing one, should be our goal."

This page is straight out of the Assad-Gaddafi "public relations" handbook.

It reads: They are evil, anti-American dictators, but portray them as being better than the supposed alternative.

In the case of Assad-Gaddafi, the scapegoat is terrorism, which is ironic for there are few worse terrorists than Assad-Gaddafi.

In the case of Castro, Serwer's scapegoats are Cuban migrants, drugs and arms, which is equally ironic for there are few worse smugglers and criminals than the Castro brothers.

One would think Professor Serwer, as an academic, would offer some data -- any data -- to support his thesis.

But he doesn't.

Evidently, Serwer is unaware of the open U.S. indictments against senior Castro regime officials for drug trafficking.  He must also be unaware of the indictment that was prepared against Cuban dictator Raul Castro himself in the 1990's (and politically scrapped by President Clinton), as head of a major cocaine trafficking conspiracy toward the United States.

Moreover, it's mind-boggling how Serwer can express concern for arms trafficking stemming from the Cuban regime's collapse, when the Castro brothers themselves have just gotten caught red-handed smuggling weapons to North Korea, in violation of international sanctions.  And it wasn't just any ordinary weapons cache -- it was the largest ever intercepted to or from North Korea since U.N. sanctions took effect.

Then, of course, Serwer pursues the all-too-familiar "migrant scare."

The fact remains that prior to the Castro regime, Cuba was a country of immigrants, not emigrants.  The only Cuban migration crises faced by the U.S. (in 1980 and 1994) were the result of coercive acts by Castro.

If migration from Cuba has been the result of Castro's regime and the only migration crises the U.S. has faced stemmed from Castro's own coercion -- then clearly the most full-proof way to neutralize this threat would be through an end to Castro's regime.

Instead, Serwer believes the best approach is to continue being coerced by the very regime that has been using Cuban migrants to threaten the United States.

As for future Mafias and criminal organizations in Cuba, evidence suggests that a hard collapse of the Castro regime is precisely the best prevention.

The most successful transitions in Eastern Europe have taken place in the countries where the current dictators and Communist Party elites took no role in the political and economic transition process, namely Estonia and the Czech Republic.

Meanwhile, the worst Mafias were created in the countries were the apparatchiks were incorporated throughout the political and economic transition process, namely Russia and Romania.  It was precisely the "soft-landing" that allowed them to use their privileged positions and connections to create criminal enterprises. As Russian intelligence expert Michael Waller has long-observed, the KGB is the heart of the Russian Mafia.

Yet, Serwer would have the U.S. embrace and pour billions into Castro's KGB-trained military and intelligence services, which currently control over 80% of the island's economy.

The fact remains that Cuba is already being run by a Mafia -- the collapse of which should be encouraged.

Finally, a timely article this week by MIT Professor Daren Acemoglu and Harvard Professor James Robinson, authors of the book, "Why Nations Fail," shows the evolution of GDP per capita following a democratization event compared to non-democracies.

(In their graph below, all democratizations are lined up to date 0 so as to visually trace out average growth following democratization relative to the control countries in which there is no democratization.)

They conclude: "the first thing that jumps out from the figure is that a typical democratization takes place when a country is undergoing an economic crisis."

Thus, economic crisis has a strong democratizing effect on non-democracies.

Data trumps theory.

Cuba Supports Russia, Syria and North Korea at U.N.

In a Twitter nutshell:

North Korean Ship Reappears in Havana

From NK News:

North Korean ship heads back to Cuba

The Chong Chon Gang reappears in Havana, after being released by Panamanian authorities

The Chong Chon Gang, the North Korean vessel caught smuggling weaponry through the Panama Canal, broadcast its return to Havana, Cuba on March 21.

The vessel continued to transmit positional data for three days, with the last signal sent at 3.14pm on March 26. The ship’s last know position in Havana Harbour is still currently visible on the NK News Vessel Tracker.

The 14000 tonne vessel docked at a birth in the Ensenada de Atarés area of the port, a part of the harbor dedicated to shipping and vessel repair services.

It is not currently known if the North Korean vessel is still in port or has left without broadcasting further positional information. Havana’s Port Authority could not be reached for comment.

The ship left Limon Bay near the Panama Canal more than five weeks ago on February 15. Sailing at its average speed of 9.1 knots the Chong Chon Gang could theoretically cover the distance between the two countries in approximately five days.

Whilst it was reported that the Chong Chon Gang would return to Cuba after being released by the Panamanian authorities, their reasons for returning to country where the North Koreans picked up the military hardware are unclear.

Quote of the Day: Rubio on Venezuela

Thursday, March 27, 2014
I hope we can get passage of [the legislation] here on the floor so we can send a clear signal to the people of Venezuela: The people of the United States of America are on your side, we support your cause, we will not forget what you are going through, we will not abandon your aspirations. We stand for the liberty and the freedom of all people, including those who do not live here with us.
-- U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), floor speech on Venezuela, 3/27/14

Castro's "New" Foreign Investment Law = No Rights for Cubans

Yesterday, the Castro regime released the details of its "new" foreign investment law, which looks a lot like its old one.

Don't believe us? See for yourself here.

In 1995, there was the same vagueness, speculation and discourse about possible Cuban-American investment (solely with the state); full-ownership for foreign companies and stronger investor guarantees.

Of course, the rhetoric about stronger investor guarantees is laughable when an unknown number of foreign businessmen remain arbitrarily imprisoned in Cuba, such as Canada's Cy Tokmakjian.

Tokmakjian was arrested in September 2011, when his Havana office was unexpectedly raided and its assets confiscated.  Nearly two years later, Tokmakjian has yet to be charged with anything.

Also, laughable is Castro's promise not to expropriate -- and this time, he really, really means it.

Tell that to the foreign businessmen who -- just in the last few years -- had over $1 billion in their Cuban bank accounts frozen.

But who's counting.

Most importantly, this "new" law offers absolutely not rights to Cubans on the island.  They remain prohibited from transacting business with any foreign entity.  Even more fundamental, they remain prohibited from owning a business, period.

(For those unaware, self-employment is a license to lease "permission" to perform a service.  It entails no ownership rights, which remain in the hands of the state.)

The only notable difference in the "new" law are some tax breaks the Castro regime is offering to its foreign partners.

Of course, the Castro regime makes up for these breaks (and then some) through the hidden taxation involved in the hiring of Cuban labor, which will remain exclusively in the hands of the dictatorship.

Thus, foreign companies will continue paying hard currency to the Castro regime to cover the wages and salaries of Cuban workers -- and the Castro regime will continue pocketing 95% of the difference.

To hire a Cuban worker, foreign companies will have to contract with the dictatorship's employment agency, which in turn, will need to receive approval from the Ministry of Foreign Commerce and the Ministry of Labor -- and naturally, from state security (unless already embedded in the employment agency).

This remains in clear violation of the International Labor Organization's Protection of Wages Convention (No. 95).

Thus, the core of Castro's "new" foreign investment law continues to be in violation of international law.

That's quite a "reform."

Tweet of the Day: Putin's Supporters

Leopoldo Lopez to LatAm Leaders: To Be Silent is to Be Complicit

By Venezuelan opposition leader, Leopoldo Lopez, in The New York Times:

Venezuela’s Failing State

As I compose these words from the Ramo Verde military prison outside Caracas, I am struck by how much Venezuelans have suffered.

For 15 years, the definition of “intolerable” in this country has declined by degrees until, to our dismay, we found ourselves with one of the highest murder rates in the Western Hemisphere, a 57 percent inflation rate and a scarcity of basic goods unprecedented outside of wartime.

Our crippled economy is matched by an equally oppressive political climate. Since student protests began on Feb. 4, more than 1,500 protesters have been detained and more than 50 have reported that they were tortured while in police custody. Over 30 people, including security forces and civilians, have died in the demonstrations. What started as a peaceful march against crime on a university campus has exposed the depth of this government’s criminalization of dissent.

I have been in prison for more than a month. On Feb. 12, I urged Venezuelans to exercise their legal rights to protest and free speech — but to do so peacefully and without violence. Three people were shot and killed that day. An analysis of video by the news organization Últimas Noticias determined that shots were fired from the direction of plainclothes military troops.

In the aftermath of that protest, President Nicolás Maduro personally ordered my arrest on charges of murder, arson and terrorism. Amnesty International said the charges seemed like a “politically motivated attempt to silence dissent.” To this day, no evidence of any kind has been presented.

Soon, more opposition mayors, elected by an overwhelming majority in December’s elections, will join me behind bars. Last week the government arrested the mayor of San Cristóbal, where the student protests began, as well as the mayor of San Diego, who has been accused of disobeying an order to remove protesters’ barricades. But we will not stay silent. Some believe that speaking out only antagonizes the ruling party — inviting Mr. Maduro to move more quickly to strip away rights — and provides a convenient distraction from the economic and social ruin that is taking place. In my view, this path is akin to a victim of abuse remaining silent for fear of inviting more punishment.

More important, millions of Venezuelans do not have the luxury of playing the “long game,” of waiting for change that never comes.

We must continue to speak, act and protest. We must never allow our nerves to become deadened to the steady abuse of rights that is taking place. And we must pursue an agenda for change.

The opposition leadership has outlined a series of actions that are necessary in order to move forward.

Victims of repression, abuse and torture, as well as family members of those who have died, deserve justice. Those who are responsible must resign. The pro-government paramilitary groups, or “colectivos,” that have tried to silence the protests through violence and intimidation must be disarmed.

All political prisoners and dissenters who were forced into exile by the government, as well as students who were jailed for protesting, must be allowed to return or be released. This should be followed by restoring impartiality to important institutions that form the backbone of civil society, including the electoral commission and the judicial system.

In order to get our economy on the right footing, we need an investigation into fraud committed through our commission for currency exchange — at least $15 billion was funneled into phantom businesses and kickbacks last year, a move that has directly contributed to the inflationary spiral and severe shortages our country is experiencing.

Finally, we need real engagement from the international community, particularly in Latin America. The outspoken response from human rights organizations is in sharp contrast to the shameful silence from many of Venezuela’s neighbors in Latin America. The Organization of American States, which represents nations in the Western Hemisphere, has abstained from any real leadership on the current crisis of human rights and the looming specter of a failed state, even though it was formed precisely to address issues like these.

To be silent is to be complicit in the downward spiral of Venezuela’s political system, economy and society, not to mention in the continued misery of millions. Many current leaders in Latin America suffered similar abuses in their time and they should not be silent accomplices to the abuses of today.

For Venezuelans, a change in leadership can be accomplished entirely within a constitutional and legal framework. We must advocate for human rights; freedom of expression; the right to property, housing, health and education; equality within the judicial system, and, of course, the right of protest. These are not radical goals. They are the basic building blocks of society.

Leopoldo López is the former mayor of the Chacao district of Caracas and the leader of the Popular Will opposition party.

Congressional Testimony: Autocracy v. Democracy in Latin America

Tuesday, March 25, 2014
Testimony of Mauricio Claver-Carone during today's hearing before the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the U.S. House of Representatives:

Thank you, Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member and Members of the Committee.

It's truly a privilege to join you here today to discuss this important and consequential issue regarding Latin America, which directly affects the national interests of the United States.

My name is Mauricio Claver-Carone and I'm the Executive Director of Cuba Democracy Advocates, a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to the promotion of human rights, democracy and the rule of law in Cuba.

My testimony can be summarized as follows:

The Cuban dictatorship is working systematically against democratic institutions in Latin America.

Autocracies, such as Cuba's, work systematically using subterfuge, coercion, censorship and state-sponsored violence, including lethal force and terrorism.

Thus, the region's democrats -- led by the United States -- must also work systematically to protect and promote its democratic institutions.

Democracies work systematically by holding human rights violators accountable; giving voice, legal assistance and protection to the victims; economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure; and by promoting successful evidence-based aid programs to break the cycle of poverty and instability.

Allow me to elaborate:

In the 1980s, it was commonly stated that: "The road to freedom in Havana runs through Managua," alluding to a cause-effect from an end to the Cuban-backed Sandinista dictatorship of Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua.

In the last decade, this statement morphed into: "The road to freedom in Havana runs through Caracas," referring to the Cuban-backed Bolivarian governments of the late Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela.

Undoubtedly, both roads represent noble and important goals, albeit temporary, short-term solutions. The reason being that the Sandinista government of the 1980s and the Bolivarian governments of today are symptoms -- not remedies -- of a greater illness.

The fact remains that no nation in Latin America will enjoy the long-term benefits of freedom, democracy and security, so long as the dictatorship of the Castro brothers remains in power in Havana.

As such, a more accurate statement would be: "The road to long-term freedom, democracy and security in Latin America runs through Havana."

The Castro regime remains as resolute today to subvert democratic institutions, direct and sponsor violent agitators and support autocrats throughout the region -- and the world -- as it did in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Granted, its tactics and scope have been diminished, mostly due to the economic realities stemming from the end of massive Soviet subsidies through 1991, but its antagonistic aims are unwavering.

No wishful thinking or accommodation policy -- both interchangeable -- will make this go away. Moreover, to underestimate the skill, diligence and effectiveness of Cuba's intelligence and security forces is a grave mistake -- the proportions of which we are witnessing today in Venezuela.

After all, the erosion of Venezuela's democratic institutions and its government's repressive practices, are the result of a protracted, systematic effort -- spanning over a decade -- of penetration and control by the Cuban dictatorship.

As Luis Miquilena, former Venezuelan Minister of the Interior, head of its National Assembly and mentor to Hugo Chavez, recently repented in an interview:

Venezuela today is a country that is practically occupied by the henchmen of two international criminals, Cuba's Castro brothers. They have introduced in Venezuela a true army of occupation. The Cubans run the maritime ports, airports, communications, the most essential issues in Venezuela. We are in the hands of a foreign country.”

Thus, it should be a priority for all democrats in Latin America -- led by the United States -- to support the democratic forces in Cuba working to end the dictatorship of the Castro brothers. That is the remedy.

Unfortunately, that has not been the case.

Last month, Latin America's democratically elected leaders paraded through Havana for a summit of the Community of Latin American States ("CELAC," in Spanish), an anti-U.S. concoction of Hugo Chavez. Currently, the organization’s rotating presidency is held by General Raul Castro.

Seemingly these elected leaders were neither interested nor concerned that Cuba’s regime had threatened, beaten and arrested hundreds of the island’s democracy advocates who had tried to plan and hold a parallel summit to discuss the lack of freedom and human rights in Cuba.

Why would Latin America's democratically elected leaders willingly participate in such a hypocritical charade? What does Cuba's regime offer them that they would stake the loss of credibility by attending?

Some take part in these charades because they fear radical agitators back home. That is the case of Mexico's President Enrique Peña Nieto. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Andres Oppenheimer was recently in Mexico, where he interviewed various well-placed insiders, and wrote: "President Enrique Peña Nieto’s disregard for the defense of universal rights and basic freedoms in Cuba and Venezuela is partly due to fear that these two countries could use their clout with Mexico’s leftist movements to stir up trouble at home."

Others attend to pursue business deals without transparency. Such is the case of Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff. During the CELAC summit, Rousseff joined Castro for the official inauguration of the newly-expanded Port of Mariel, a collaboration of the Brazilian conglomerate Odebrecht Group and the Cuban military. This was the same facility from which Cuba's recent smuggling of illegal weapons to North Korea originated. In an unprecedented move, the Brazilian government has now "classified" all documents related to the Odebrecht-Cuban military venture.

Lastly, others lack democratic zeal and conviction. These are the leaders who harbor authoritarian ambitions that the Cuban regime is helping them achieve. We'll return to them at the conclusion.

This trend is reversible -- but the leadership of the United States is vital.

Undoubtedly, the democrats of Latin America need to step up to their own responsibilities, but in the cost-benefit analysis that all political leaders make, they need to be left with no doubt that the benefits of standing up for freedom and democracy in Cuba outweigh the costs. Whether we like it or not, only the United States can tip that balance.

Hence the title of today's hearing, “U.S. Disengagement from Latin America: Compromised Security and Economic Interests.”

To be clear, the United States is not the cause of Latin America's problems. To the contrary, it represents the solution. U.S. leadership in the region should be public, unquestionable and unwavering, particularly as regards the shared values of freedom, democracy and security.

Our democratic allies in the region should know and anticipate the benefits derived from embracing and promoting democratic practices. Likewise, autocrats should know and anticipate the consequences of undemocratic practices and illegal acts.

Currently, neither is the case.

We are witnessing the first with Venezuela. The silence of Latin America's leaders amid the violent suppression of dissent by the government of Nicolas Maduro is scandalous.

The reasons for their silence, amid the arrest, torture and murder of Venezuelan students, is similar to their rationale for embracing the Castro dictatorship at the CELAC summit in Havana, while Cuban democracy activists were being beaten and arrested there.

However, instead of leading and encouraging the region's democrats in holding Maduro's government accountable, the United States is -- unwittingly -- contributing to their silence.

For example, this past Friday, the Panamanian government ceded its seat at the Organization of American States ("OAS") to Venezuelan legislator Maria Corina Machado, a leading opposition figure, to denounce the human rights abuses of the Maduro government.

In 1988-1989, Venezuela's democratic government had supported Panama's democratic opposition against the repression of Manuel Noriega's regime, including their right to be heard at the OAS.  Thus, Panama's democrats remain grateful.

The U.S. should have applauded this gesture by Panama. Yet, unfortunately, the United States initially sought to dissuade the Panamanian government from accrediting Maria Corina Machado to speak at the OAS.

That is a lamentable fact.  I would urge the Committee to ask the U.S. Department of State for its rationale.

A democratic nation in Latin America gives a voice, a platform, to one of the leading democratic figures that Nicolas Maduro is forcefully trying to silence -- even threatening her with imprisonment -- and the U.S. grimaces.

What message does that send to the rest of Latin America's democrats? Why should they then speak out? Who's going to support them when Cuba's regime and its agitators take reprisals? What message does this send to Venezuela's courageous democracy activists?

The U.S. should be making the benefits of supporting Venezuela's democratic institutions absolutely clear -- not muddying the message.

In the same vein, the consequences for undemocratic practices and illegal acts should be absolutely clear.

There is no better opportunity to do so than regarding the Castro regime's recent smuggling of weapons to North Korea, in blatant violation of international law.

In July 2013, a North Korean flagged vessel, Chong Chon Gang, was intercepted by Panama carrying weaponry from Cuba hidden under 200,000 bags of sugar.

This month, the U.N.'s Panel of Experts ("Panel") released its official report on North Korea's illegal trafficking of weapons, in conjunction with Cuba's Castro regime.

The Panel concluded that both the shipment itself and the transaction between Cuba and North Korea were international sanctions violations.

This shipment constituted the largest amount of arms and related materiel interdicted to or from North Korea since the adoption of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1718 (2006).

As for Cuba, it's the first time a nation in the Western Hemisphere is found in violation of U.N. sanctions.

The report noted similar Cuba trafficking patterns by other North Korean ships in the recent past. In other words, it's believed similar shipments have gotten away.

To understand the magnitude of this shipment, Scott Snyder, a Korea expert at the Council of Foreign Relations, explained:

"If the North Korean-flagged Chong Chon Gang had been successful in bringing its MiG-21 cargo to North Korea, the transaction with Cuba might have been the biggest sale of fighter plane related equipment since a MiG sale from Kazakhstan in 1999. The Chong Chon Gang cargo included mint-condition rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) that are essential to North Korea’s efforts to extend its conventional reach on the peninsula as USFK (United States Forces Korea) command elements transition south from Seoul to Pyeongtaek."

Such egregious practices should not be inconsequential.

Otherwise, it would send a demoralizing message to our democratic ally, Panama, which put its resources and reputation on the line to intercept the vessel. Other democratic nations wouldn't find it worth the cost and energy of pursuing similar violations in the future.

Moreover, inaction breeds impunity. If Cuba's regime does not face any consequences, it would embolden non-democratic actors in Venezuela and other nations to do the same. There has long been suspicion that Venezuela and Ecuador have been helping Iran and Syria skirt the U.S.'s financial sanctions. Russia is currently seeking to establish military bases in the region. They would surely interpret any inaction as a green-light.

One immediate consequence the United States should adopt is to prohibit transactions with Cuba's military conglomerate, GAESA, run by Raul Castro's son-in-law, General Luis Alberto Rodriguez Lopez-Callejas.  GAESA, which controls over 80% of Cuba's economy, was at the center of the transactions linked to the North Korea arms smuggling operation.

Currently, every single U.S. "people-to-people" traveler that visits Cuba stays at one of GAESA's 4 and 5 star hotels and resorts.  Tourism represents GAESA's most lucrative enterprise. Such transactions should be prohibited.

Finally, it's essential that the United States lead the region's defense, promotion and application of the Inter-American Democratic Charter ("Charter"). Otherwise, it will become irrelevant.

The authoritarian ambitions of Venezuela's Nicolas Maduro, Ecuador's Rafael Correa, Bolivia's Evo Morales, Argentina's Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega are no secret.

What has inhibited them -- thus far -- is the institutionalization of representative democracy as the backbone of hemispheric relations, as was agreed upon in the 2001 Inter-American Democratic Charter signed by 34 of the 35 countries of the Western Hemisphere. To skirt the Charter, they try to manipulate laws and institutions and exert greater executive control while maintaining a facade of democracy.

The biggest deterrent to breaking their public commitments to representative democracy has been the omnipresent economic isolation of Cuba as the result of U.S. sanctions. These leaders are keenly aware that they need the United States to survive economically. For example, Venezuela is entirely dependent on exporting oil to -- and importing gas from -- the United States.  Thus U.S. sanctions on Cuba serve as “the stick” to “the carrot” of the Inter-American Democratic Charter and obeisance, if not enforcement, of its principles.

It's precisely the authoritarian underbelly of these Latin American leaders that makes them such zealous lobbyists for the end of U.S. sanctions on Cuba.  It's for this reason that they want to see the Castro regime embraced despite its blatant disregard for representative democracy. Such a U.S. policy change would allow them to accelerate their own authoritarian tendencies and free their zeal for absolute power.

If U.S. sanctions toward Cuba are lifted and Castro's dictatorship is embraced -- what's to keep a return to the Latin American dictatorships of the 20th Century?

The people of the Americas can’t afford a return to the dictatorships -- whether of the left or the right -- that once ruled Latin America. It would severely damage the 21st century national interests of the United States.

Sadly, plenty of Latin American “leaders” would gladly seize the opportunity to permanently close the door on democracy.

Let’s not hand them the opportunity.

Mr. Chairman, this concludes my testimony. Again, I truly appreciate the invitation and the opportunity to speak before you and the Committee. I will be pleased to respond to any questions.

Here We Go Again: Foreign Investment Law Edition

Sunday, March 23, 2014
Last week, media outlets (once again) speculated and hyped "discussions" by the Castro regime about a new foreign investment law.

Except the speculation and discussions sound exactly like those nearly 20-years ago.

In other words, the Castro regime has been spinning the media with the same talking points about foreign investment for two decades.

Read the following articles from 1995 very carefully.

Note how they talk about guarantees, full-foreign ownership, duty-free zones, Cuban-American investment, etc.

These could have been written (word-for-word) last week -- and probably were.

This Associated Press article is from September 5, 1995:

Cuban Parliament Passes New Law to Drum Up Foreign Investment

After heated debate over how to prevent capitalism from spoiling Cuba's socialist soul, Parliament passed a new law Tuesday aiming to lure badly needed foreign investment.

The proposal, approved without opposition by the more than 500 deputies, is the first major overhaul of foreign investment laws since Cuba cracked the door to outside business in 1982. That door opened wide after 1989 as Cuba's socialist trading partners vanished and the country sought capital to save its struggling economy.

The measure creates clearer laws on investments and offers stronger guarantees that investors can repatriate net profits and sell out at any time.

For the first time in decades, foreigners will be allowed to buy houses, offices or hotels. Duty-free zones can now be created, and a ban on full foreign ownership of businesses was lifted.

But Cuban officials insisted during the often-contentious two-day National Assembly session that they are not going to give foreign capitalists a free hand.

This Washington Post article is from September 6, 1995:

Cuba Approves Law Promoting Foreign Interest

In one of its sharpest breaks yet from socialist dogma, the Cuban government Tuesday approved a law greatly increasing the role of foreign investment in the battered economy and allowing creation of free-trade zones.

The law, passed after two days of sometimes heated debates in the National Assembly presided over by President Fidel Castro, opens the way for foreigners to wholly own business and property and allows foreign investment in every sector of the economy except the strategic areas of education, health and national defense. It also guarantees that foreign properties cannot be expropriated without compensation and speeds the process of approving proposed investments.

And this New York Times article is from September 7, 1995:

Cuba Passes Law to Attract Greater Foreign Investment

Government officials said today that they expected a significant infusion of capital after passing a new foreign-investment law this week, but few observers, including the Cubans, are predicting a huge rush to invest in Cuba yet.

The law, approved by the National Assembly on Tuesday after more than a year of debate, allows foreign investors access to all economic sectors except defense, health care and education and to fully own their businesses in Cuba, either privately or in the form of public stock companies. Currently, most foreign ventures exist through associations with the Government and foreign companies are allowed less than 50 percent ownership.

The law also offers guarantees similar to those in other countries for transfer of capital and compensation for expropriations, and allows investors to own housing, offices and other buildings, although it does not address the question of land ownership. It also allows free trade zones and opens the door for Cuban exiles to invest.

Can Chavistas Save Venezuela From Cuba?

Excerpt from Amb. Roger Noriega's "Can the Chavistas Save Venezuela from Cuba?" in Real Clear World:

One Chavez confidante told me six months ago, "This is not a Chavista government in Caracas; it is a Cuban one." For years, nationalist Chavistas have had to grit their teeth as thousands of Cubans assumed new roles in their government, particularly in the internal security apparatus that spied on Venezuelans and purged the military of "disloyal" officers. Havana's heavy hand has become even more conspicuous under Maduro.

Since Chavez began to implement his authoritarian agenda 15 years ago, his conservative foes have warned that Venezuela would become "another Cuba." In recent months, with ration lines forming throughout the country, Chavistas have begun to see what "another Cuba" looks like. The fact that Havana is micromanaging this collapse as it siphons away billions of free oil is as disgusting to Chavista loyalists as it is to patriotic university students.

Violent gangs of armed militants, backed by National Guard units, have served as Maduro's shock troops against protesters. About 30 people have been killed in these confrontations, including around 25 anti-government demonstrators or bystanders. The fact that two military officers are among the dead has led many professionals in the armed services to contemplate the terrible consequences of escalating violence on behalf of "a Cuban" regime. Sources within the military say that a number of officers have already refused to deploy their regular army units for crowd control duties.

Maduro's grip on power is weakened further still by the desperate financial condition of the regime. According to a Central Bank source, his government does not have the cash to fill empty shelves, let alone the ability to indefinitely deploy street gangs and security forces. With shortages of basic goods worsening and public services failing, unrest is expected to spread to the poorest neighborhoods, including old Chavista strongholds. Maduro cannot bludgeon his way out of this predicament, particularly when the only support he can rely on is in Havana.

Chavistas want to save their movement from incompetent leadership and foreign interference and to protect their social base. Student protesters want to roll back the authoritarian intrusions and economic mismanagement that threaten their future. These fundamental goals are far from mutually exclusive for Venezuelans of good will looking to rescue their country.

Venezuela Sacks Ambassador to Cuba

From The Havana Times:

Venezuela Sacks Ambassador to Cuba

The Venezuelan government dismissed Edgardo Antonio Ramírez on March 21 as its ambassador to Cuba, a key post in the country of President Maduro’s chief ally, at a time of political turmoil at home, reports La Opinion.com.

While no reason for the sudden removal of the ambassador was given, a possible mishandling of funds is not out of the question.

In the coldly worded resolution published in the Venezuelan Gaceta Oficial, Foreign Minister Elías Jaua simply states that “citizen Edgardo Antonio Ramírez ceases” to be the Venezuelan ambassador to Cuba.

The statement adds that Ramírez must present a sworn declaration of his personal assets in compliance with article 23 of Venezuela’s anti-corruption law, a requirement of all Foreign Service officials.

Ramirez was appointed to the post of ambassador to Cuba in May 2011 by the then president Hugo Chávez.

Another Oil Company Relinquishes Cuba Block

It's always interesting how -- sooner or later -- successful companies always reconsider their ties to the Castro regime.

Yet, unfortunately, they hand over millions in the process.

From Malaysia's The Star:

Petronas exceeds targets, production grows at 5.8%

Petroliam Nasional Bhd’s (Petronas) production of oil and gas last year grew an unprecedented 5.8%, double its target of 3% per annum and beating some of the world’s biggest names in the industry.

Despite lower currency exchange rates, naturally reducing domestic reserves and geopolitical tensions in the Middle East and South Sudan, the group’s total production edged up 5.8% to 2.21 million barrels of oil equivalent per day (boepd) from 2.08 million boepd the year before.

Total group resources stood at 32.8 billion boe, versus 32.6 billion boe in 2012. This means its international resources fell slightly to 10.2 billion boe against 10.4 billion boe, which Petronas attributed to its relinquishing of blocks in Venezuela, Uzbekistan, Oman and Cuba.

In a bid to “high-grade” its assets, the oil giant exited four countries, namely Venezuela, Cuba, Oman and Sierra Leone, and ventured into new areas such as Suriname.