On #PressFreedomDay: Two Cuban #InfoHeroes:

Saturday, May 3, 2014
For World Press Freedom Day (3 May), Reporters Without Borders has published its list of “100 information heroes.”

Among them are two Cubans:

Yoani Sanchez

A philologist by training, Yoani Sánchez is a celebrity in her own country and internationally. Time Magazine ranked her as one of the world’s 100 most influential people in 2008. Her Generación Y blog, launched in 2007 with the aim of “helping to build a plural Cuba,” covers the economic and social problems that ordinary Cubans constantly face. Like other bloggers, she has been subjected to varied insults (such as “contemptible parasites”), intermittent blocking and judicial harassment. In early 2014, she announced her intention to create an independent collective media platform in Cuba. “The worst could happen on the first day, but perhaps we will sow the first seeds of a free press in Cuba,” she said.

Angel Santiesteban-Prats

His blog is called “ Los hijos que nadie quiso” (The children no one wanted). The writer and netizen Ángel Santiesteban-Prats has been held for more than a year for openly criticizing the “dictator” Raúl Castro, as he calls him. Convicted on trumped-up charges of “home violation” and “injuries” in a summary trial on 8 December 2012, he was sentenced to five years in prison. In April 2013, he was transferred to a prison in the Havana suburb of San Miguel del Padrón where he has been subjected to mistreatment and acts of torture. His novel “El verano en que Dios dormía” (The summer God slept) received the 2013 Franz Kafka Drawer Novel Prize, awarded in Prague to unpublished Cuban novels.

Castro's Russian Power Play Over the European Union

Friday, May 2, 2014
This week, the Castro regime made it absolutely clear that the new "dialogue" with the European Union ("EU") will be a "monologue" on their terms.

In other words, it will be solely about doing business with Castro's monopolies, financial bailouts and diplomatic normalization -- nothing in terms of democratization or human rights.

It's for this reason that while Castro's Deputy Foreign Minister, Abelardo Moreno, was meeting in Havana with Christian Leffler, the top EU diplomat for the Americas, both Raul Castro and Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez were simultaneously embracing Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who was "coincidentally" invited to Cuba at the same time.

Needless to say, it was no coincidence.

Not only was Castro parading (and yachting) Lavrov throughout the island, they were publicly slamming the EU for sanctioning Russia over its illegal aggression in the Ukraine.

The "poke in the eye" to the EU sent a clear message -- it'll be Castro's way or the highway.

This is based on Castro's political calculus of what the EU really cares about -- business.

It's similar to Putin's political calculus, which was recently best explained by Ben Judah in Politico ("Why Russia No Longer Fears the West."):

"European elites are more concerned about making money than standing up to [Putin]. The evidence is there [...] Brussels today, Russia believes, talks about human rights but no longer believes in it. Europe is really run by an elite with the morality of the hedge fund: Make money at all costs and move it offshore."

Tweets of the Week: Young Cuban Democracy Leader on Sanctions

Thursday, May 1, 2014
By young Cuban democracy leader and co-founder of Estado de Sats, Ailer Gonzalez Mena:

It's very easy for some "Cuban-Americans" to call for an end to the embargo because they are not the ones receiving the beatings in #Cuba

Aha, lift travel restrictions to #Cuba, in order to enjoy the exoticism of misery and to contribute to the totalitarian coffer.

#FreeThePress: State Department Recognizes Cuban Independent Journalist

In the week leading up to World Press Freedom Day on May 3, the U.S. Department of State highlights emblematic threats to journalists while continuing to call on all governments to protect the universal human right to freedom of expression.

Among the featured journalists is:

Roberto de Jesus Guerra

Roberto de Jesus Guerra is an activist, blogger, human rights defender, and Director of the independent Hablemos Press. Independent press remains illegal in Cuba, and independent journalists reporting for Hablemos Press constantly face numerous challenges in their efforts to report on activism and the human rights situation on the island, due to the Cuban government’s use of short term detentions, blocking of new media, and monopoly on traditional media. Guerra alone has been detained over 100 times for his efforts to freely share information.

We call on the Government of Cuba to end its use of arbitrary detentions, at times with violence, to silence independent voices and unduly restrict freedom of expression and of the press.

Images: Ladies in White Attacked and Arrested at Funeral

Last week, we'd posted about the beatings and arrests by the Castro regime at the funeral of the father of Ibis Maria Rodriguez, a prominent member of The Ladies in White.

The Ladies in White is a pro-democracy group that consists of the wives, mothers, daughters, sisters and other relatives of Cuban political prisoners.

The political police physically assaulted Ibis and other dissidents. It also arrested her husband, Fermin Zamora Vazquez.

Below are some images:

Kudos to Ambassador Power

Cuba's Support for Venezuela's Paramilitary "Colectivos" Constitutes Terrorism

Yesterday, the U.S. Department of State released its 2013 Country Reports on Terrorism ("Report"), which retains Cuba, Iran, Syria and Sudan as "state-sponsors of terrorism."

Yet, in the summary of Cuba's practices, it fails to mention the arming and training of Venezuela's violent paramilitary groups, known as "colectivos."

This has been documented by former Venezuelan intelligence and military officials.

The Report uses Section 2656f(d) of Title 22 of the U.S. Code to define certain key terms, namely:

(1) the term “international terrorism” means terrorism involving citizens or the territory of more than one country;

(2) the term “terrorism” means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents;

Cuba has been arming and training Venezuela's "colectivos" for years. Since the latest student protests began in February, they have been the catalysts for extra-judicial violence, including beatings and murder.

Pursuant to the definition of "international terrorism," this constitutes Cuban-sponsored violence in another country, Venezuela.

Moreover, the premeditated, political violence perpetuated by the "colectivos" against student protesters ("non-combatant targets") constitutes "terrorism."

The violence against the student protesters has come to fruition this year and has been documented for the world to see.

It should not be omitted from next year's report.

Did North Korea Use Cuban Artillery Shells in Live-Fire Drill?

Wednesday, April 30, 2014
Just hours after U.S. President Barack Obama wrapped up his trip to Asia, North Korea began a provocative live-fire drill -- launching over 50 artillery shells near the South Korean border.

The artillery shells launched were similar to those intercepted in the Chong Chon Gang, a vessel carrying over 240 tons of Cuban weaponry to North Korea, in violation of international law.

As the U.N. Panel of Experts reported to the Security Council:

"The shipment included 10 lots of shells casings (packed with samples of propelling charge but without primers) of various diameters (57 to 152 mm) for various purposes (fragmentation, high explosive, armour piercing and or tracer). Each lot contained between five and eight shell casings."

At least seven other potential shipments from Cuba-North Korea have been identified.  Thus raising the question of the ones that got away.

This live-fire drill also puts into perspective the dangers and magnitude of the Cuba-North Korea arms smuggling venture.

As Scott Snyder, a Korea expert at the Council of Foreign Relations, has previously explained:

"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."

From The Korea Herald:

N. Korea conducts live-fire drills

North Korea fired some 50 coastal artillery shells near the Northern Limit Line, a de facto inter-Korean sea border, during live-fire drills on Tuesday, further ratcheting up tension at a time when South Korea is grieving over a deadly ferry disaster two weeks ago.

None of the shells fell south of the NLL, Seoul’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said.

The 10-minute drills began at 2 p.m., some five hours after the North’s southwestern frontline command sent a fax notification to the South’s Second Fleet of its plan to stage the drills around its border islands of Wollaedo and Jangjaedo.

“In the North’s notification, it claimed the drills were part of its regular exercises. But they could be intended to raise tension near the NLL or probe the South Korean military to find out our responses,” a senior JCS official told reporters, declining to be named.

After receiving the notification, the South Korean military directed fishing crews and residents on the country’s frontline islands to evacuate to safe zones, and strengthened its readiness posture.

The military deployed four fighter jets and several warships including a guided missile destroyer to prepare against any provocations that would encroach upon South Korean territory.

Cuba Remains a State-Sponsor of Terrorism

The U.S. Department of State has just released its 2013 Country Reports on Terrorism ("Report"), whereby Cuba, Iran, Sudan and Syria retain their designation as "state-sponsors of terrorism."

In its Report, the State Department notes that:

"Cuba has long provided safe haven to members of Basque Fatherland and Liberty (ETA) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)."

Moreover, that "the Cuban government continued to harbor fugitives wanted in the United States. The Cuban government also provided support such as housing, food ration books, and medical care for these individuals."

Some of these individuals include Joanne Chesimard, who is on the FBI's Top Ten Most Wanted Terrorists list, and Frank Terpil, the renegade CIA agent who smuggled nuclear materials to Libya's former dictator Muammar Gaddafi and led his political assassination squads.

Of concern is the State Department's omission in the Report of the illegal trafficking of weapons by the Cuban military to North Korea's pariah regime, and the arming and training of Venezuelan paramilitary squads known as "colectivos."

Both activities fall under the category of "acts of terrorism."

The full Report can be read here.

MUST-READ: Cuba is Open for Business That Might Land You in Jail

By Peter Kent, Canadian Parliamentarian and Chair of the House Standing Committee on National Defence, in The Huffington Post:

Cuba Is Open For Business That Might Land You in Jail

If word out of Havana is to believed -- relayed aggressively in recent weeks by Cuban diplomats and trade emissaries to major investors in financial centers around the world -- a new day of investment opportunities is dawning in the cash-strapped communist state.

The sales pitch is driven by a set of new laws passed last month by the Cuban National Assembly.

The legislation provides for steep tax cuts and tax exemptions. There are a range of new guarantees of investment security.

In short, Cuba is open for business and safe for foreign investors.

Reality is at stark odds with the platitudes of the Cuban trade officials and diplomats. One example, of many:

Since September 10, 2011 a Canadian citizen, Cy Tokmakjian, President and CEO of the Tokmakjian Group of Companies, has been detained by Cuban authorities.

He is one of dozens of Cuban and foreign business executives scooped by anti-corruption investigators of the Cuban Ministry of the Interior (a ministry modeled, in the early years of the Cuban Revolution, on the Soviet KGB and East German Stasi).

The Interior Ministry investigations are a direct product of President Raul Castro's selective anti-corruption crusade. It is worth noting, that the only foreign "suspects" in the investigations are almost all European or Canadian business executives; none have come from Cuba's like-minded communist or authoritarian regimes.

Cy has been held for more than two-and-a-half years and is still awaiting his day in court. He is 73 years old, in frail health and held in La Condesa, a crudely austere, walled prison for hardened criminals located in the middle of a sugar cane plantation.

His personal assets and those of the business (in excess of $90 million) have been seized by Cuban authorities. It seems no coincidence that Cuba ensured claims made against the Tokmakjian Group exceed the value of seized assets. There have been suggestions to company representatives that additional millions sent from Canada could result in a more "lenient" outcome.

Cy is a popular and respected corporate citizen in Canada and, until his incarceration in Cuba in 2011, had operated businesses there for more than 20 years.

He was recognized by the Cuban Government -- indeed, by former President Fidel Castro -- for his integrity and his contributions to Cuba's economy through various joint ventures and closely-audited partnerships.

Throughout his detention, Cy has denied all allegations of wrongdoing.

At the same time, Cy has been pressured by the Cuban investigators to sign a variety of "confessions." His own Interior Ministry-assigned Cuban lawyers are also under great pressure to gain any possible admission of guilt.

He has been told, many times, that, if he drops International claims against Cuba or admits to minor "offenses," he would have a lenient trial and be released immediately.

The Canadian government, since 2011, has regularly requested that the Cuban government specify precise charges and allow Cy a fair trial, or, that he be released and his seized assets restored.

In recent weeks, the Cuban prosecutors finally produced a list of formal charges from original allegations that had been investigated, then abandoned by investigators over the past 2.5 years. The formal charges are considered by Cy's international legal team to be entirely without merit.

His lawyers have proposed a witness list of highly credible individuals and organizations to refute what can only be described as distortions and misrepresentations of normal, foreign business practices in Cuba (for decades past and still today). It is not clear whether these formidable witnesses will be allowed to testify.

The Cuban case includes:

- allegations of "bribery" that include basic staff productivity incentives, performance bonuses, dinners and entertainment.

- Cuban allegations of "tax evasion" that ignore tax treaties (Barbados/Cuba), ignore Cuba's own tax regulations, and ignore 3 expert tax opinions (Deloitte Forensic, Deloitte Tax, and even a Cuban tax authority)

I have known Cy for some years, both as his Member of Parliament for the Toronto area riding of Thornhill and, as Canada's former Minister of State for Foreign Affairs (Americas).

And, while Minister, I discussed a wide range of trade and foreign policy issues with Cuban political leaders, diplomats and officials, topics including the then praised partnerships with Tokmakjian Group companies.

Although Canada and Cuba do not agree on all bilateral or international issues of any day, our government has worked to address thorny matters such as human rights, the rule of law, and democratic development in Cuba even as we've encouraged Canadian business and industry to work with Cuban partners to help develop the struggling national economy.

During my ministerial visit to Cuba in 2010, Cy was characterized as a valued partner by Cuban interlocutors. His companies then represented the second largest Canadian investment in Cuba after the Canadian resource company, Sherritt International.

I recall, during Canada's most recent, unsuccessful, campaign for our once-in-a-decade position on the Security Council, the Cuban Ambassador to the UN making a point of advising Latin American and Caribbean diplomats that, while Cuba does not agree with Canada on all issues, Cuba respects the transparent and principled contribution that Canada makes in international fora.

I also recall, on the day of the Security Council vote, the Cuban Ambassador actively lobbying for votes on the floor of the General Assembly with our Canadian delegation while some of our closest G7 partners sat on their hands.

Those days of honest brokering and principled dispute resolution now seem long gone.

I visited Cy in September last year at Cuba's notorious La Condesa Prison outside Havana.

His focus then as today: give me my day in court -- a fair and complete examination of unfounded allegations as well as consideration of detailed defense rebuttals and expert witnesses.

As Cy still awaits a trial date, the international financial community should ponder long and hard the investment blandishments of Cuban ministers, diplomats and trade officials.

They might also consider other foreign business executives who were swept up earlier in the Interior Ministry's anti-corruption crusade.

Very little internet scouring is required to discover the very similar cautionary tales of people such as Briton Stephen Purvis or French national Jean Louis Autret. Both men are free to tell their respective horror stories... without millions in assets that were seized by Cuba.

Their stories, like Cy's, have created a climate of uncertainly and concern among foreign companies that remain invested in Cuba. There but for blind luck, or an aggressive, anti-capitalist investigator from the Interior Ministry, could go many more respectable foreign businessmen.

Despite the Cuban National Assembly's tempting new investment legislation.

Tweet of the Day: Russian Foreign Minister Yachting in Cuba

The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent out the following tweet and picture of Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, and Castro's Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodriguez, yachting off Cuba's coasts.

They are apparently celebrating their respective foreign interventions -- of Ukraine and Venezuela.

Two Important Points About Cuba's New Foreign Investment Law

By Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo in Sampsonia Way:

The Inverse Logic of Investments in Cuba

Two important points to consider about Cuba’s new investment law.

Cuba’s National Assembly of People’s Power, breaking its usual habit of holding only two meetings each year, met in March 2014 to unanimously approve—as, suspiciously, has been the case for all the laws that have been voted on by the Assembly for decades—a new investment law.

Commentators will now discuss the legal intricacies and social transformations that this law will bring for the Cuban people and the diaspora.

But for us Cubans on the island or in exile—or rather, us Cubans on the island and in exile, since the difference between the two is less noticeable every day, especially among the younger generations—only two aspects of this parliamentary gem of so-called “twenty-first-century socialism” matter:

1) It is established that Cubans living abroad cannot invest in the national economy that they have left behind.

2) It is established that Cubans living in Cuba cannot invest in the national economy that has left them behind.

For the business people of the rest of the world, the democratic tycoons looking to invest in totalitarianism, only these two aspects should matter, and make a difference:

1) It is established that Cubans living abroad cannot invest in the national economy that they have left behind.

2) It is established that Cubans living in Cuba cannot invest in the national economy that has left them behind.

But there are things that never become true even when repeated a thousand times. And it’s very likely that investors would turn a deaf ear to both points.

Nonetheless, please at least allow me the desperate privilege of anti-journalistically having a third attempt:

1) It is established that Cubans living abroad cannot invest in the national economy that they have left behind.

2) It is established that Cubans living in Cuba cannot invest in the national economy that has left them behind.

Investors of the world unite!

A Middle-Ground Approach to Help Cuba's "Self-Employment" Sector

Tuesday, April 29, 2014
Frustrated by the broad bipartisan support in Congress for current U.S. sanctions towards Cuba, opponents of the policy want President Obama to violate the clear mandates of the law.

For those unaware, Article I of the U.S. Constitution grants Congress the sole authority to enact legislation. Meanwhile, under Article II, the President is responsible for the execution and enforcement of the laws created by Congress.

U.S. sanctions towards Cuba, as codified into law in 1996 (trade) and 2000 (travel), is not an issue where Congress was ambiguous.

For example, as regards travel, a provision in the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000 (§910(b) of P.L. 106-387, Title IX) codified the ban on tourist activities, which are defined as any activity not expressly authorized in the 12 categories of travel set forth in the regulations. It further specified, "as such regulations were in effect on June 1, 2000."

In other words, if the license and category of travel didn't exist on June 1, 2000, then it's considered tourism and strictly prohibited. Only Congress can create new travel categories or lift the sanction altogether.

But that doesn't stop U.S. policy foes from calling on the President to do so anyway. After all, it's only the law.

The latest siren song is that lifting U.S. sanctions would help Cuba's "self-employment" sector (despite the Castro regime's monopoly over all of the island's foreign commerce).

Facts and history prove that lifting sanctions is the worst way to help Cuba's "self-employment" sector.

We recently explained why in The Huffington Post.  Click on this link to read, "In Cuba Policy Debate, Theories Don't Cut It."

Here's an excerpt:

"Cuba's military and intelligence services control and run the conglomerates of Cuba. The 'self-employment' sector represents a very small part of the island's economy and it is important, in the debate over sanctions, to understand its nature and limits. During economic crises, the Castro regime typically authorizes a host of services that Cubans can be licensed to provide, keeping at least a portion of what they may be paid. The world's news media refers to these jobs as 'private enterprise,' which implies 'private ownership.' Yet Cuba's 'self-employed' licensees have no ownership rights whatsoever - be it to their artistic or 'intellectual' outputs, commodity they produce, or personal service they offer. Licensees have no legal entity (hence business) to transfer, sell or leverage. They don't even own the equipment essential to their self-employment. More to the point, licensees have no right to engage in foreign trade, seek or receive foreign investments. Effectually licensees continue to work for the state -- and when the state decides such jobs are no longer needed, licensees are shut down without recourse.

A central tenet of capitalism is recognition of property rights and it's precisely such rights that the Castro regime avoids through its distorted, licensing model. It's also why, despite these 'self-employment' licenses, Cuba remains ranked 177 out of 178 nations in the world in the Index of Economic Freedom, a yearly joint compilation of The Wall Street Journal and The Heritage Foundation. Only North Korea is considered less economically free.

Based on the lessons of history, those who still believe 'self-employment' licenses are 'a step in the right direction' toward capitalism, actually have all the more reason to support U.S. sanctions. Self-employment was a temporary reaction to loss of Soviet subsidies, and with the remnants of the Chavez regime in Venezuela now imploding, Cuba will likely continue allowing it. Yet the historic lesson is clear: The Castro regime only responds when it is economically pressed. Once the Cuban economy stabilizes or begins to 'bounce back,' the Castro government reverses itself to freeze or revoke self-employment licenses. Lift U.S. sanctions and Cuba's government will solely focus on strengthening its state conglomerates and the repression required to suppress change. Thus, U.S. sanctions are the best friends that 'cuentapropistas' now have."

So we propose a middle-ground approach.

It's an approach that would: 1. help Cuba's "self-employment" sector; 2. not violate U.S. law; 3. not entail any new stream of capital entering the island; and 4. deny funds to Castro's monopolies.

It's a win-win all around.

It stems from a floor speech earlier this month by U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, who made the important point:

"On the economic front, I think it's important to make the point that when people argue for trade and travel with Cuba, they are arguing to do so with Castro's monopolies. Let’s be clear, regular Cubans are prohibited from engaging in foreign trade and commerce. So we want to trade with Castro's monopolies? Do we? Do we want to reward the regime?

The U.S. government’s own report of agricultural sales to Cuba states how every single transaction with Cuba, by hundreds of American agricultural companies, have only had one counter-part: Castro's food monopoly, through a company named Alimport that hasn't helped the people one bit. So do we really want to unleash billions to Castro's monopolies?

Also, every single foreign 'people-to-people' traveler currently stays at a hotel or resort owned by the Cuban military (GAESA). No exceptions!

So, M. President, how does that promote the 'independence of the Cuban people from the regime?' as President Obama's policy statement upon releasing these regulations states?"

At the very least, they should be compelled to stay at a 'casa particular' – a private home – but staying at the military's facilities contravenes the President's own policy statement. This hardly constitutes an economic opening for the people of Cuba."

There you have it.

We propose a simple requirement whereby all U.S. "people-to-people" travelers to Cuba -- better yet, every category of U.S. travelers to Cuba -- must stay exclusively at "casa particulares" and dine only at "paladares."

No more stays at the Castro regime's fancy Hotel Nacional and Hotel Saratoga, or parties at La Bodeguita del Medio, El Floridita and Tropicana.

And if the "casa particular" or "paladar" is a front for the Cuban military -- it's also a no-go.

Let's do it. For the "self-employment" sector.

Over 85 Ladies in White Arrested on Sunday

Monday, April 28, 2014
At least 87 members of The Ladies in White were arrested this weekend by the Castro regime, as they tried to attend Sunday Mass.

This Sunday's Mass was dedicated throughout the world to the canonization of John XXIII and John Paul II.

The Ladies in White is a pro-democracy group that consists of the wives, mothers, daughters, sisters and other relatives of Cuban political prisoners.

In Havana, there were 27 arrested, including Rosario Morales, Belkis Felicia, Victoria Díaz Morfa, Jesica Casternao, Haydeé Gallardo, Yamilé Garro, Nayibis Corrales, Julia Estrella Aramburu and Lázara Bárbara Sendiña.

Among the 17 arrested in the province of Matanzas were Asunción Carrillo, Caridad Burunate, Yenisleydis Millo and Mayra García.

Dozens of arrests were also reported in Holguin and Santiago de Cuba.

With its usual cynicism, while the Castro regime arrested peaceful activists for trying to attend Mass in Cuba, its Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodriguez, was in Rome attending the official canonization ceremony.

More "reform" you can't believe in.

Castro's Newest Economic Non-Reform

It's fascinating how foreign journalists, who are presumably neutral observers, can write these types of stories with a straight face.

In the latest episode of Raul "the reformer," the AP lauds a new measure that "gives state-run companies more autonomy."

Wow!  That sounds rhetorically impressive.

Except it means absolutely nothing, for they remain state-run-and-owned companies -- meaning that they remain 100% operated and owned by the Castro regime.

Moreover, it means that 100% of the proceeds remain in the hands of the Castro regime.

But why let the facts ruin a good (false) narrative.

For the next act, opponents of U.S. policy will now argue that this "reform" is another example of why we should lift sanctions -- for expanding trade and investment with Castro's monopolies will (somehow) "empower" the Cuban people.

No, really.

From AP:

Cuba gives state-run companies more autonomy

Cuba has approved several measures giving state-run businesses more autonomy.

The changes include giving government-run enterprises more leeway to conduct secondary commercial operations.

For example, a factory that specializes in canned vegetables could get into a side business such as candy-making or recycling.

Previously, such entities were mostly barred from doing anything outside of their primary activity.

They will also be allowed to sell any excess goods at market prices.

The measures published Monday in the government's Official Gazette say state companies can keep up to 50 percent of their profits, 20 percent more than before.

The changes are the latest in a package of reforms that seek to revive Cuba's weak economy.

Russian Foreign Minister Headed to Cuba

Last week, the Pentagon also confirmed the presence of a Russian spy ship operating off the coasts of Cuba.

From AFP:

Lavrov to visit Cuba as tensions with West over Ukraine

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was expected in Havana Monday for a two day visit, the foreign ministry said, amid high tensions with the West over Ukraine.

Cuba has sided with Russia in the worst East-West crisis since the Cold War, but has yet to speak directly to the issue.

Lavrov will meet with his Cuban counterpart, Bruno Rodriguez, Tuesday morning, the Cuban Foreign Ministry said in an invitation to the press to cover the meeting.

Russia's top diplomat is likely to meet with Cuban President Raul Castro as well.

Moscow and Havana were close allies for 30 years during the Cold War, until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. After a rift under former Russian president Boris Yeltsin, they resumed political and economic ties as well as military cooperation.

The United States and the European Union sought to punish Moscow for the crisis Monday with another round of sanctions against Ukrainian and Russian figures and companies.

As pro-Kremlin militias continue to seize government buildings in eastern Ukraine, US and EU authorities decided that Moscow is showing no sign of 'de-escalating' the crisis by living up to the Geneva accord reached April 17.

Repercussions for Alan Gross' Hostage-Taking Are Long Overdue

Sunday, April 27, 2014
To argue that the Obama Administration hasn't done anything to secure the release of Castro's American hostage, development worker Alan Gross, is unfair and incorrect.

The Obama Administration has taken steps to secure Gross' release -- albeit only in the form of easing sanctions and unconditionally engaging his Cuban hostage takers.

This has resulted in an emboldened Castro regime hardening its blatant ransom demands for Gross, namely the release of three Cuban spies convicted in U.S. federal courts for serious crimes, including forming part of the conspiracy to murder three American citizens and a permanent resident.

To understand how the Castro regime views its American hostage, Alan Gross, read this recent oped by Rabbi Abraham Cooper, Associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, who visited him in Cuba.

Of course, for the Castro regime and its propagandists in the United States, anything less than the dangerous and unmerited release of these Cuban spies is equivalent to "doing nothing."

The Obama Administration deserves credit -- thus far -- for publicly recognizing the dangerous precedent such an arrangement would set.

The steps taken by the Obama Administration to ease sanctions and engage the Castro regime (rather than facing repercussions) pursuant to Gross' imprisonment were summarized in the following Wall Street Journal oped from September 2012, which remains just as timely and relevant today:

Cuba's American Hostage

The White House calls for the release of Alan Gross but puts scant pressure on Havana to let him go.

by Mauricio Claver-Carone

Since December 2009, American development worker Alan Gross has been imprisoned by the Castro regime for trying to help Cuba's Jewish community connect to the Internet. For that Mr. Gross—who was in Cuba as a contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development—was arrested, convicted in a sham trial and sentenced to 15 years.

The White House and State Department have repeatedly called for Alan Gross's "immediate release." The Gross family's legal team urged the family to keep a low profile, thinking it could negotiate his release. (The family ended that representation earlier this year.)

But Fidel and Raúl Castro don't typically react to discretion and haven't felt much U.S. pressure on this case. Even after Mr. Gross was seized, the administration sought rapprochement with Havana and continued talks in 2010 and 2011. It also has continued to ease U.S. sanctions on Cuba.

Mr. Gross's sister, Bonnie Rubinstein, recently led a protest in front of the Cuban Interests Section—a de facto embassy—in Washington, D.C., seeking her brother's release. She feels "he's being ignored" and says, "Alan does not want to be forgotten. He doesn't want to be left there. He wants people to know about him."

It's easy to understand her concern. In April 2009, the Obama administration eliminated all restrictions on Cuban-American travel and remittances to Cuba, which became the centerpiece of our nation's new "Cuba policy." Those actions predated Mr. Gross's arrest. However, after Mr. Gross was seized in December of that year and throughout 2010, while he was being held without trial, the administration took various steps that, collectively, seem incomprehensible.

The administration initially used diplomatic mechanisms to try to negotiate Mr. Gross's release. These included a high-profile visit to Havana in January 2011 by then-Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere Roberta Jacobson.

Ostensibly this was for the Cuba Migration Talks, which are part of a process to ensure safe and legal migration from Cuba. But Ms. Jacobson was the highest-level official ever to represent the U.S. at the talks, and it was hoped she could intercede on behalf of Mr. Gross. Nothing happened.

Common sense suggests that at this point the Obama administration should have toughened its stance by making clear that there would be repercussions if Mr. Gross was not released. Instead, the administration began another round of easing sanctions the next week.

This time the concessions to Havana had nothing to do with advancing the humanitarian goal of allowing Cuban-Americans to visit and assist their families. Instead Washington agreed to establish a frivolous travel category under the banner of encouraging "people-to-people" visits.

Under the "people-to-people" program, the Cuban government approves package tours of Havana conducted by U.S. "nonprofit" companies. American tourists are accompanied by regime "guides." Tourists visit government ministries, confiscated cigar factories, censored art festivals, official cultural events and other places burnished by the Castros' propaganda machine. Evening mojitos and salsa dancing are included.

Such trips have become a great new source of "trouble-free" travelers and income for the Cuban regime. They're also lucrative for U.S. entities, including many state and local chambers of commerce, which license the dealings and now offer "Cuba tours" to members at a premium price.

The Obama administration followed up that all's-well message to the Communist dictator still holding an American hostage by granting a visa to Cuban dictator Raúl Castro's daughter, Mariela, to make a promotional tour across the U.S.

It's no wonder the Gross family has become more vocal and is now holding weekly protests at the Cuban Interests Section. Two U.S. senators, Dick Durbin (D., Ill.) and Jerry Moran (R., Kan.)—who have historically encouraged U.S. business ties with the Castro regime—stated in June that they have suspended their efforts to promote U.S.-Cuba trade. Sen Moran said he hoped this would "put pressure" on Havana to release Mr. Gross.

In July, the Obama administration did indefinitely postpone its yearly Cuba-U.S. Migration talks [but they have since been unconditionally restarted and expanded]. But the Commerce Department is allowing shipments directly to Cuba out of the Port of Miami of food, medicine and other humanitarian items—and also of 32-inch flat-screen TVs.

Will the Obama administration ever make it clear to the Castro brothers that their regime cannot take Americans hostage with impunity? The prospect of the U.S. rolling back non-humanitarian travel and transactions to the island would get Havana's attention. One thing is abundantly clear: Alan Gross needs stronger, tougher support than rhetorical demands that he be "immediately released."

U.S. Confronts Consequences of Underestimating North Korea's Dictator

Last week, in The Financial Times, Moises Naim illustrated how underestimating Cuba's dictatorship led to its de facto takeover of Venezuela.

This week, in The New York Times, David Sanger has a great analysis on the consequences of underestimating North Korea's dictatorship.

We'd like to add an important point to Sanger's analysis.

In 2008, the Bush Administration made a historic mistake by removing North Korea from the "state-sponsors of terrorism" list -- without merit -- as a political ransom for nuclear verification talks.

Not only did the talks prove to be fruitless, but it showed North Korea's regime that the U.S. could effectively be coerced.  Thus, every time the Kim regime has a tantrum now, it takes an American hostage or threatens nuclear tests.

Here's Sanger's analysis:

U.S. Confronts Consequences of Underestimating North Korean Leader

Almost everything American intelligence agencies and North Korea-watchers thought they understood two years ago about Kim Jong-un, the North’s young leader, turns out to have been wrong.

The briefings given to President Obama after Mr. Kim inherited leadership said it was almost certain he would be kept in check by his more experienced uncle, Jang Song-thaek. Instead, Mr. Kim had his uncle and dozens of others executed.

The early betting was also that Mr. Kim, who was briefly educated in Switzerland, would emphasize economic overhaul over expanding the nuclear and missile arsenals that were his father’s and grandfather’s legacy. Instead, the nuclear program has surged forward, and recent missile tests are demonstrating that after years of spectacular failures, the North’s engineers are finally improving their aim. Their next big challenge is proving that an intercontinental missile they have shown only in mock-ups can reach America’s shores.

As a result, when Mr. Obama lands here on Friday on the second stop of his Asia tour, he will be confronting the question of whether his strategy of “strategic patience” with the North has been overtaken by reality: an unpredictable, though calculating, ruler in Mr. Kim, who has proved to be more ruthless, aggressive and tactically skilled than anyone expected.

“We have failed,” said Evans J. R. Revere, who spent his State Department career trying various diplomatic strategies to stop the North. “For two decades our policy has been to keep the North Koreans from developing nuclear weapons. It’s now clear there is no way they will give them up, no matter what sanctions we impose, no matter what we offer. So now what?”

It is an assessment some of Mr. Obama’s aides say they privately share, though for now the administration refuses to negotiate with the North until it first fulfills its oft-violated agreements to freeze its nuclear and missile programs. A recent effort inside the National Security Council to devise a new approach resulted in a flurry of papers and classified strategy sessions — and the conclusion that all the alternatives to the current course were worse.

“We’re stuck,” one participant in the review said.

The only place any real change is visible is in the military planning by South Korea and the United States, which maintains a shrunken force of 28,000 troops in the South. For the first time since the armistice in 1953, officials say, the contingency plan for a conflict with the North treats the nation as a nuclear-capable adversary, despite the administration’s official refusal to acknowledge it as a de facto nuclear state. (What appear to be North Korea’s preparations for a fourth nuclear test, perhaps in the coming days, seem intended to remove all doubt.)

The latest revision of OpPlan 5029, the war plan for the Korean Peninsula, assumes that if a conflict broke out, the North would be able to deliver a crude nuclear weapon, though perhaps by truck or ship. American intelligence officials do not believe the North is yet able to shrink a bomb to a size that could fit on one of its Nodong missiles, the key breakthrough it needs.

“He’s put new effort into his nuclear program, missiles, special operations forces and long-range artillery,” said Gen. Curtis M. Scaparrotti, who took over last fall as commander of United States Forces Korea and the United Nations Command here. “They are using more underground facilities. He’s gone to school on how we operate.”

Defense officials say they now have less warning time on missile launchings than they had two or three years ago because Mr. Kim has put his resources into mobile launchers that are regularly moved from tunnel to tunnel, making them harder for American satellites to track.

Although details of the revised plan are classified, officials have talked about elements of it. Since the North shelled a South Korean island and was blamed for sinking a South Korean warship four years ago, there are now extensive plans for immediately responding to and then de-escalating small attacks along the border regions.

The North Korean forces remain numerically impressive at a million soldiers, but highly unimpressive when they train. The country is so poor that South Korean military officials say its pilots rarely have the gas to perform practice runs.

But in recent interviews here and in Washington, a picture has emerged of Mr. Kim’s new focus on inexpensive weaponry, from missile launchers to crude cyberweapons, that are hard to detect and harder to halt. Mr. Kim, who is believed to be 30 years old, has also nurtured his reputation for unpredictability, keeping adversaries on edge.

Administration officials acknowledge they have largely left North Korea on the back burner while focusing on sanctions, cyberattacks and pressure on Iran, forcing it into negotiations.

“The administration decided, consciously or implicitly, that Iran was more important and there was a greater prospect of getting something done,” said Robert Einhorn, who ran the sanctions enforcement program against both countries until he left the State Department last year. “While you can squeeze Iran and its oil money, it’s much harder to squeeze North Korea” while China continues its financial support.

White House officials argue that focusing first on Iran made sense. Its program can still be halted before it gains a weapons ability, if that is Tehran’s goal, and the administration believes that North Korea is less likely to set off a regional arms race.

“You could argue that the best North Korea strategy now is to get a deal with Iran, and use it as a model for the North about what the world can look like,” one senior administration official said.

But others inside the administration fear that policy is too passive — and perhaps a prescription for a much larger North Korean arsenal by the time Mr. Obama leaves office.

At the heart of the problem are dashed hopes that Mr. Kim would conclude that his grandfather’s and father’s pursuit of a nuclear ability was a Cold War relic, and that he would gradually steer the country to integration with the world economy. There was modest reason for optimism just months after Mr. Kim came to power in 2011 and struck yet another deal to freeze all his nuclear and missile activity, in return for a resumption of the episodic six-party talks with the United States and other nations. That brief effort ended when the North launched a satellite in honor of Mr. Kim’s grandfather. Diplomacy froze for the next two years, with the administration unwilling to make concessions as previous administrations did only to find that the North was reneging on its promises.

In recent months the Chinese have led an effort to restart diplomatic talks, and the United States has quietly met with the North. But the goal is unclear. To the United States, the purpose of the talks would be denuclearization; Mr. Kim’s government has already declared that the one thing he will not do is give up his small nuclear arsenal, especially after seeing the United States help unseat Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya, who surrendered his own nuclear program in 2003.

Joel Wit, a former North Korea strategist for the American government, said Mr. Kim drew an indelible lesson from that history. “It’s not an accident he’s positioning himself to make sure the inventory of nuclear material in the hands of the North is about to take off,” said Mr. Wit, who edits 38 North, a website that follows the murky, often murderous politics of the Kim government.

He was referring to the North’s effort to expand the production of highly enriched uranium, which would give Mr. Kim a steadier, more plentiful supply of nuclear fuel than its past reliance on extracting plutonium from a small nuclear reactor.

“I’m now convinced North Korea would prefer to collapse with nuclear weapons than try to survive without nuclear weapons,” Chun Yung-woo, who recently served as the South’s national security adviser, said this week. Yet the strategy Washington is pursuing is based on the opposite assumption.

President Obama's Letter on Venezuela

Below is the text of the response note by U.S. President Barack Obama to the letter and online petition by Venezuelan activist, Ruth Alcala:

"Thank you for your letter which Congressman Joe Garcia brought to my attention. I'm deeply troubled by the continued repression of protestors in Venezuela, and in addition to working behind the scenes with our international partners, I have called on the Venezuelan government to release detainees, stop criminalizing dissent, and stop using government backed groups to sow violence. Rest assured, that we will continue to champion the legitimate grievances of the Venezuelan people. With our international partners, we have pushed for real dialogue with third party mediators. And we believe that all Venezuelans deserve the same rights and freedoms as people throughout the Americas."