The AP's Apparent Disdain for Dissidents

Saturday, July 19, 2014
In announcing its new Havana bureau chief this week, the AP wrote in its release:

"AP continues to deploy top-notch journalists to tell the story of Cuba's people, culture and government with accuracy, fairness and insight."

One can't help but chuckle.

Many words can be used to describe the AP's reporting in Havana, but "fairness" and "accuracy" don't immediately come to mind.

In a nation where its continued presence is based on a constant fear of expulsion (and thus -- self-censorship), its insulting to claim "fairness" and "accuracy." The AP's Havana bureau even has a full-time Cuban "journalist" on its staff, who everyone knows (whether diplomats, dissidents or other foreign journalists) is a shill of the Castro regime.

But back to the point.

Earlier this year, the AP was scandalized by U.S. efforts to create an alternative social media site ("Zunzuneo") that would allow Cubans to inter-connect independent of the Castro regime.

The "scandal" here is that the Castro regime strictly censors the Internet. Thus, the U.S. should apparently respect the Castro regime's censorship efforts.

Today, the AP's "big story" is that the U.S. supports human rights and democratic opposition NGOs in Venezuela. 

The "scandal" here is that the Chavez-Maduro government bans any support of NGOs. Only the Castro regime is allowed to provide "support" in Venezuela. Thus, the U.S. should respect the authoritarian whims of the Chavez-Maduro regimes.

Can't wait for the AP's next "big story" -- will it condemn U.S. support for the Ukrainian people and NGOs, or maybe anti-Assad Syrians?

This week, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made the following observation in The Daily Show:

"What I found when I became secretary of state is that so many people in the world—especially young people—they had no memory of the United States liberating Europe and Asia, beating the Nazis, fighting the Cold War and winning, that was just ancient history. They didn’t know the sacrifices that we had made and the values that motivated us to do it. We have not been telling our story very well. We do have a great story. We are not perfect by any means, but we have a great story about human freedom, human rights, human opportunity, and let’s get back to telling it, to ourselves first and foremost, and believing it about ourselves and then taking that around the world. That’s what we should be standing for."

She's absolutely right.

The AP could use a reminder as well.

ALBA's Favorite Lobbyist

After being outed last month for unregistered lobbying activities, two New York-based PR firms -- MCSquared and Fitzgibbon Media -- have filed documents with the U.S. Department of Justice admitting to their representation of Rafael Correa's government in Ecuador.

For these PR efforts, the Ecuadorian government paid over $6.4 million.

So who does Correa now hire to do damage control (from its original damage control)?

Former U.S. Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-MA).

According to new documents filed, Delahunt will help the Correa government coordinate “meetings with U.S. government officials and assisting with media efforts, aimed at enhancing the U.S.-Ecuadorian relationship and raising issues of importance to Ecuador as they relate to bilateral U.S.-Ecuador relation.”

Delahunt is known for his close relationship with former Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, Nicolas Maduro and Cuba's Castro brothers.

He's previously come under criticism for his activities on behalf of the Venezuelan government.

Most recently, Delahunt has led a lobbying effort seeking U.S. approval of products from Castro's Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (CGEB).

If ALBA is in trouble, call Delahunt to the rescue.

A Sign of Growing Threats in Latin America

By U.S. Senator Marco Rubio in Power Line:

Russia-Cuba Cooperation a Sign of Growing Threats in Latin America

Following the news in recent months has sometimes felt as if we’ve opened a time capsule from the Cold War – when Soviet Union aggression was the norm along with its determination to prop up U.S. adversaries in the Western Hemisphere, most notably the Castro regime in Cuba. Today, Russia under Vladimir Putin has challenged the international order through its unlawful annexation of Crimea and continued provocations against Ukraine. In our own hemisphere, there is growing evidence of Russia’s interest in reconstituting their Cold War-era presence in the region. Just this week, in the wake of Putin’s visit to Havana, reports emerged about Russia’s renewed push to improve intelligence operations in Cuba.

While these Russian actions are concerning in their own right, they are emblematic of a larger problem affecting U.S. interests in the Western Hemisphere. The Obama Administration’s failure to pursue a consistent, meaningful and proactive strategy in Latin America has left a leadership void that not only Russia but also China, Iran, North Korea and others have been able to exploit. In recent years, we’ve seen each of these nations move aggressively to enhance their alliances in the region, and expand their defense and intelligence relationships.

Failing to deal with our adversaries on dangerous threats like these – as well as North Korea’s illicit weapons trafficking alliance with Cuba – will have many consequences that will be felt right here in the Western Hemisphere. For almost six years, the Obama Administration’s neglect of the hemisphere has failed to stem the rise of authoritarianism, the deterioration of democratic order and rampant human rights violations, while emboldening America’s strategic challengers.

The Obama Administration must wake up from its Latin America slumber of the past six years, reinvigorate our alliances, act resolutely when our interests are threatened, and ensure that an emerging foreign policy crisis in Latin America is not left to the next U.S. president to fix. Continuing to ignore this situation, as the Obama Administration has often been inclined to do when threats are starting to emerge, simply won’t make the problem go away. For the sake of America’s interests and the region’s stability, we must rightly elevate Latin America to the level of attention it deserves even as global crises mount.

What would this involve?

In Russia’s case, we cannot wait around for Europe to figure out how to address the situation in Ukraine. The U.S. must lead the way by imposing more far-reaching sectoral sanctions that go further than what has been announced so far, which would send economic shockwaves through the Russian economy and government treasury, increase internal pressure on Putin’s government to change, and deprive him of the funds he needs to bankroll his aggressive foreign policy initiatives. We also need to increase our assistance and support for our allies and partners in Central and Eastern Europe, many of whom face increasing pressure from Moscow.

With regard to Cuba, the U.S. must continue denying the Castro regime access to money it uses to oppress the Cuban people and invest in foreign policy initiatives that actively challenge and undermine U.S. interests. The Obama Administration should roll back the economic benefits it has extended to the Cuban regime, in the form of expanded U.S. travel and remittances, as a meaningful response to the regime’s ongoing unfair imprisonment of an American humanitarian worker, and its violation of multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions banning arms trade with North Korea. Just months after Cuba was chastised by a UN report for its illicit military trade with Pyongyang, news emerged this week of another North Korean ship with an unknown cargo that recently docked in Havana. Additionally, given that Venezuela now plays the lead role that the Soviet Union once did of bankrolling the Castro regime, President Obama should impose sanctions on Maduro regime officials responsible for human rights violations against the Venezuelan people.

More broadly in the Western Hemisphere, the U.S. must strengthen our alliances in the region by finalizing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) that includes several Latin American countries, and ensure that other countries in the region with which the United States has signed free trade agreements can quickly join a finalized TPP. We should continue building on hemispheric energy initiatives that will make us less dependent on energy from unreliable oil producing nations like Russia and Venezuela. We must combat drug cartel violence and instability in Central America, and work to expand opportunities for these nations to provide greater opportunities for their people. Part of this requires making sure that the TPP does not leave Central American countries behind, and that we work to strengthen our security relationships with willing partners like Honduras and Guatemala. The U.S. military and U.S. Southern Command should also be free to expand, train and equip missions in the region with the help of more capable regional allies, such as Colombia. Efforts like these will help ensure that the region’s future is shaped by the U.S. and like-minded allies who believe in free enterprise, individual freedoms, the rule of law, and a foreign policy based on peace through strength.

I realize that, especially in recent months, many Americans have grown alarmed by news of growing Russian provocations that remind us of another era we thought had ended when the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union disintegrated. Many Americans see events that are mostly occurring on the other side of the world, particularly in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, and question their impact on us. And they are seeing more evidence of these nations’ increasing presence in our own hemisphere.

As history has always shown – and recent events have reaffirmed – authoritarian governments are never satisfied with dominating only their own people; they seek the weakening and outright conquest of their neighbors, along with growing influence in every corner of the planet. Russia’s renewed interest in our own neighborhood as well as China’s increasing activity show this to be the case.

The Obama Administration must wake up before it’s too late, and these emerging problems in our region become even bigger nightmares. It’s not too late, but the current administration no longer has the luxury of ignoring them long enough for them to become someone else’s problems.

How to Stifle "Reforms"

Friday, July 18, 2014
Anti-sanctions lobbyists like to argue that prematurely lifting sanctions will encourage dictators to "reform."

Just this week in The Hill, the Brookings Insitution's Richard Feinberg wrote an article entitled "President Obama could use a win," in which he argues that the U.S. would "accelerate" Raul's "reforms" by lifting sanctions.

Of course, he doesn't explain how this would work.

Moreover, there's no evidence to show how prematurely lifting sanctions has ever initiated or accelerated any dictator's reforms.

To the contrary, it's the surest way to stifle reforms -- as the Obama Administration is recently learning in Burma.

These anti-sanctions lobbyists overlook a fundamental premise:

Dictators do not initiate reforms because they want to. Dictators only initiate reforms when forced to.

In Burma, the pressure of sanctions had forced its regime to undertake a host of reforms.

(Burma's political reforms have been more significant than anything we've seen in China or Vietnam. Not to mention far greater than anything we've seen from Raul Castro in Cuba. For more on this, read "To Change Cuba, Stick With the Burma Model".)

President Obama was swayed by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton -- despite objections from others in his Administration -- that prematurely lifting sanctions and high-level engagement would help "accelerate" Burma's reforms.

Unfortunately, the exact opposite is now happening.

As The Washington Post reported last week:

"[T]wo years after Obama made a historic visit to the Southeast Asian nation, the achievement is in jeopardy.

Burma’s government has cracked down on the media. The parliament is considering laws that could restrict religious freedom. And revered opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who welcomed Obama to her home in 2012, remains constitutionally barred from running for president as the country heads into a pivotal election next year.

The situation is most dire in Burma’s western reaches, where more than 100,000 Rohingya Muslims are living as virtual prisoners, with little access to health care and food. The fast-deteriorating conditions prompted Tomás Ojéa Quintana, a former United Nations special rapporteur for human rights, to say in April that there is an “element of genocide” in the Rohingyas’ plight.

The setbacks have raised the stakes for Obama’s scheduled November visit to a regional conference in Burma, during which the administration had hoped to showcase the country’s progress as part of its strategic 'rebalance' toward Asia. Now even some of Obama’s allies on Capitol Hill have begun to question whether the administration has moved too quickly to embrace Burma’s leadership."

Feinberg is right that President Obama "could use a foreign policy win."

For starters, he can ignore Feinberg's advice.


Mariel's Unimpressive Start

Despite all the media hype and propaganda, the Castro regime's Port of Mariel has been a dud.

Since it opened six months ago, Mariel has handled 57 ships with less than 15,000 containers.

Yet, according to the Castro regime, Mariel has the capacity to handle 822,000 containers.

In other words, it's currently working at less than 2% of its capacity.

Compare this to the nearby Port of Kingston's (Jamaica) yearly traffic of 2 million containers or Freeport's (Bahamas) 1.5 million containers.

Wonder whether the Castro regime is including illegal arms shipments (which were loaded at the Port of Mariel) to North Korea in its figures?

(As a reminder, below is the North Korean captain's note indicating the arms shipments were to be picked up at the Port of Mariel.)

Either way, not very impressive.

Castro Blames Ukraine and Israel

Perhaps the U.S. should abandon Israel and allow Putin to annex Ukraine, so that the world's tyrants won't have any more "excuses."

We're being sarcastic, of course.

As we've long argued, dictators need no excuses for their illegal and repressive acts.

From The Havana Times:

Fidel Castro Blames Ukraine and Israel

In a short commentary published today in the official Cuban media, entitled “Astonishing Provocation”, Fidel Castro insinuates that the fault a Malaysia Airlines passenger plane crashed on Thursday lies with the government of the Ukraine, the position taken by Russian President Vladimir Putin. The former Cuban president also lashes out at Obama and Israel for the hundreds of deaths in Gaza.

Below is Castro's statement:

This morning’s (Thursday) news was saturated with the astonishing bulletin that a Malaysia Airlines plane had been hit while flying at 10,100 meters high over the territory of the Ukraine on the path under control of the warmongering government of the chocolate king, Petro Poroshenko.

Cuba, which was always supportive of the people of Ukraine, and in the difficult days of the tragedy of Chernobyl attended the health of many children affected by harmful radiation from the accident and will always be prepared to continue such aid, cannot fail to express its rejection by the action of such an anti-Russian, anti-Ukrainian, pro-imperialist government.

In turn, coinciding with the crime of the Malaysia plane, the Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of a nuclear state, ordered his army to invade the Gaza Strip, where in the preceding days hundreds of Palestinians had died, many of them children. The U.S. president supported the action, calling the heinous crime as an act of self-defense. Obama did not support David against Goliath, but Goliath against David.

As is known, young Israeli men and women, well prepared for productive work, will be exposed to die without honor or glory. I do not know what military doctrine the Palestinians will use, but I know a fighter ready to die can defend even the ruins of a building as long as he has a rifle, as demonstrated by the heroic defenders of Stalingrad [in World War II].

I only wish to express my solidarity with this heroic people defending the last inch of what was their homeland for thousands of years.

Waiting for the Consequences

Thursday, July 17, 2014
In a statement yesterday, U.S. President Barack Obama warned Russia that "its actions in Ukraine have consequences."

Thus, he was announcing a new set of sanctions against Russian entities.

Kudos to President Obama. He's absolutely right.

In the same vein though, it begs the question(s):

When will the Cuban regime face consequences for taking and holding an American hostage since December 2009?

When will the Cuban regime face consequences for trafficking weapons to North Korea, in blatant violation of international law?

When will the Cuban regime face consequences for subverting democracy in Venezuela and coordinating its violent crackdown on peaceful opponents?

When will the Cuban regime face consequences for the dramatic rise in repression against its own peaceful opponents?

And most recently, will the Cuban regime face consequences for helping Russia intercept U.S. civilian and military communications?

For, thus far, the Cuban regime has faced few consequences.

Yet, plenty of concessions.

Sanctioned Russian Companies Have Cuba Ties

Yesterday, the Obama Administration sanctioned various Russian entities in the financial services, energy, and arms sectors.

These sanctions were in response to Russia’s continued attempts to destabilize eastern Ukraine and its ongoing occupation of Crimea.

Some of the sanctioned Russian companies have Cuba ties.

Most notably, the Obama Administration imposed new financial restrictions on Rosneft, which is Russia's largest petroleum company.

Just last week, it was announced that Rosneft would help the Castro regime with its defunct offshore oil exploration ambitions.

There ambitions are a propaganda ploy, as in practice it has proven to be logistically and commercially unfeasible.

You can now add financially unfeasible as well.

Also sanctioned was VEB, a Russian state-owned financial institution that acts as a development bank and payment agent for the Russian government.

Last week, VEB opened a corresponding account in the National Bank of Cuba and was designated as the entity responsible with re-investing on the island the $3.5 billion (plus 10% interest) in outstanding debt owed to Russia -- pursuant to the remaining $32 billion being written-off.

However, since Castro will not pay back the $3.5 billion, this is rather insignificant.

Finally, the Obama Administration also blocked the assets of Russian firearms producer, Kalashnikov Concern, a subsidiary of Rostec.

In 2011, Rostec (through another subsidiary, Rosoboronexport) signed a contract with the Castro regime to build an assembly line for production of ammunition for Kalashnikov assault rifles.

This entity has also sold $11 billion worth of weaponry to Venezuela's government.

Tweet of the Day: What Raul and Putin Discussed

Amnesty International: On Sentencing of Three Cuban Dissidents

From Amnesty International:

Cuba: Sentencing of three brothers postponed

URGENT ACTION

The sentencing of three prisoners of conscience originally scheduled for 1 July has been postponed with no further information. They are prisoners of conscience and should be released immediately and unconditionally.

Twenty-two-year-old Alexeis Vargas Martín and his two 18-year-old twin brothers, Vianco Vargas Martín and Django Vargas Martín, were tried on 13 June at the Provincial Court in Santiago de Cuba, south-eastern Cuba, under the charges of public disorder of a continuous nature (alteración del orden público de carácter continuado).

The sentencing was scheduled for 1 July but was postponed with no indication of a new date. The mother of the three brothers visited the Court on 1 July in order to collect the sentencing documents but they were not finalised. According to local activists the authorities may try to convince the three brothers to give up their activism and this could be the reason behind the postponement.

Amnesty International believes that their arrest and detention is in response to their peaceful exercise of their right to freedom of expression and that it is intended to send a message of intimidation to other government critics, particularly other members of the Patriotic Union of Cuba (Unión Patriótica de Cuba, UNPACU). The three brothers are prisoners of conscience and must be immediately and unconditionally released.

Russia to Reopen Military-Intelligence Gathering Facility in Cuba

Wednesday, July 16, 2014
According to Russian state media, Vladimir Putin and Cuba's Castro brothers have agreed to resume electronic espionage operations at the Lourdes Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) facility near Havana.

The Lourdes SIGINT facility was the largest such complex operated by Russia and its intelligence services outside the region of the former Soviet Union. At its peak, the facility was staffed by over 1,500 KGB, GRU and Cuban DGI technicians, engineers and intelligence operatives.

According to the Intelligence Resource Program, the Lourdes complex was capable of monitoring a wide array of commercial and government communications throughout the southeastern United States, and between the United States and Europe.

From this key facility, Russia monitored U.S. commercial satellites, and sensitive communications dealing with U.S. military, merchant shipping and Florida-based NASA space programs.

Note that the U.S. military's Central Command, Southern Command and Special Operations Command are all based in Florida.

On October 17, 2001, Russian President Putin announced that the Lourdes facility would be shut down. However, negotiations to reopen the facility began a few years ago and culminated during this week's trip by Putin to Havana.

According to Russian Defense Ministry sources cited by its state media, the "goodwill gesture" to close down the facility in 2001 has not been appreciated by the United States. Thus, Russia now seeks to reopen and modernize the facility.

Below is the full report from RT:

Russia to reopen Cuban mega-base to spy on America – report

Moscow and Havana have reportedly reached an agreement on reopening the SIGINT facility in Lourdes, Cuba - once Russia’s largest foreign base of this kind - which was shut down in 2001 due to financial problems and under US pressure.

When operational, the facility was manned by thousands of military and intelligence personnel, whose task was to intercept signals coming from and to the US territory and to provide communication for the Russian vessels in the western hemisphere.

Russia considered reopening the Lourdes base since 2004 and has sealed a deal with Cuba last week during the visit of the Russian President Vladimir Putin to the island nation, reports Kommersant business daily citing multiple sources.

I can say one thing: at last!” one of the sources commented on the news to the paper, adding that the significance of the move is hard to overestimate.

The facility in Lourdes, a suburb of Havana located just 250km from continental USA, was opened in 1967. At the peak of the cold war it was the largest signal intelligence center Moscow operated in a foreign nation, with 3,000 personnel manning it.

From the base Russia could intercept communications in most part of the US including the classified exchanges between space facilities in Florida and American spacecraft. Raul Castro, then-Defense Minister of Cuba, bragged in 1993 that Russia received 75 percent of signal intelligence on America through Lourdes, with was probably an overstatement, but not by a large amount.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union the base was downscaled, but continued operation. After Russia was hit the 1998 economic crisis, it found it difficult to maintain many of its old assets, including the Lourdes facility. In Soviet times Cuba hosted it rent-free, but starting 1992 Moscow had to pay Havana hundreds of millions dollars each year in addition to operational costs to keep the facility open.

An additional blow came in July 2000, when the US House passed the Russian-American Trust and Cooperation Act, a bill that would ban Washington from rescheduling or forgiving any Russian debt to the US, unless the facility in Lourdes is shut down.

Moscow did so in 2001 and also closed its military base in Vietnam’s Cam Ranh, with both moves reported as major steps to address Americans’ concerns. But, in the words of a military source cited by Kommersant, the US “did not appreciate our gesture of goodwill.”

No detail of schedule for the reopening the facility, which currently hosts a branch of Cuba’s University of Information Science, was immediately available. One of the principle news during Putin’s visit to Havana was Moscow’s writing off of the majority of the old Cuban debt to Russia. The facility is expected to require fewer personnel than it used to, because modern surveillance equipment can do many functions now automatically.

With the Lourdes facility operational again, Russia would have a much better signal intelligence capability in the western hemisphere.

Returning to Lourdes now is more than justified," military expert Viktor Murakhovsky, a retired colonel, told Kommersant. “The capability of the Russian military signal intelligence satellite constellation has significantly downgraded. With an outpost this close to the US will allow the military to do their job with little consideration for the space-based SIGINT echelon.”

North Korea-Cuba: Ships of Subterfuge

From The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's Editorial Board:

Defending America: Ships of subterfuge

A cargo ship whose mysterious wanderings suggest illicit arms smuggling near U.S. shores shows North Korea doesn't need missiles to threaten America — which must strengthen its national defense and never let its guard down, especially in its own backyard.

Writing for Forbes, Claudia Rosett of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies brings to light the North Korean-flagged freighter Mu Du Bong. In late June, it “called at Cuba, then vanished from the commercial shipping grid for more than a week,” likely by turning off a required transponder. Reappearing at Havana on July 10, it was last known to be “cruising the Gulf of Mexico, not all that far from ... the coast of Texas.”

Ms. Rosett cites “disturbing similarities” to “another North Korean freighter, the Chong Chon Gang.” It was caught last summer violating United Nations sanctions on North Korea by trying to smuggle through the Panama Canal “an illicit load of weapons” it had picked up in Cuba. It carried about “240 tons of arms and related materiel, including two disassembled MiG-21 jet fighters, additional MiG engines, surface-to-air missile system components, night vision goggles and ammunition” — all concealed by “more than 200,000 bags of Cuban sugar.”

Rosett says the United States could impose its own sanctions on North Korean vessels in general. But the real lesson here is the need for greater U.S. vigilance against such threats close to its shores — especially so long as the Castro regime welcomes North Korean port calls.

Tweet of the Day: On Foreign Journalists in Havana

From Cuba's Ladies in White:

Where was the foreign press accredited in #Cuba, while opponents and Ladies in White were being mistreated and arrested in Santa Rita?

Editor's Note: After 53 straight Sundays of arrests, this week (finally) an AFP reporter was in the vicinity, witnessed and reported the events. The rest took Sunday off.

State Department: Detention of Cuban Activists

Tuesday, July 15, 2014
From the U.S. Department of State:

Detentions of Dozens of Activists in Cuba

On Sunday Cuban authorities rounded up and detained over one hundred courageous members of the Damas de Blanco as they sought to peacefully commemorate the loss of life on the tugboat 13 de Marzo, sunk by the Cuban Government 20 years ago this past weekend.

We strongly condemn the Cuban Government’s continued use of this intimidation tactic to silence its critics and disrupt peaceful assembly.

We urge the Government of Cuba to end these practices and respect the universal human rights of the Cuban people.

Did North Korean Vessel in Cuba Panic After Detection?

Interesting how after the presence of another suspicious North Korean vessel (Mu Du Bong) in Cuba was exposed -- trying to avoid detection -- it headed to Veracruz, completely empty and its "disoriented" captain accidentally grounded it.

Sounds like he panicked.

From The Maritime Executive:

North Korean Ship Runs Aground in GoM

A North Korean freighter sailing from Havana, Cuba has reportedly ran aground in the Gulf of Mexico on Monday, roughly 12 kilometers from the Mexican port of Tuxpan.

According to Veracruz authorities, the captain of the Mu Du Bong was “disoriented” when the accident occurred. The freighter was empty, but specialized work will be needed to lift the 6,500-tonne ship from the sea floor.

It was not immediately known how long it would take to free the North Korean vessel.

There were no immediate reports of injuries or other damage. However, environmental officials were still determining if the reef at that location was damaged.

The 1983-built ship passed through the Panama Canal before its scheduled stop in Cuba.

Sound familiar? This incident comes a year after another North Korean vessel, which had been docked in Havana before trying to cross the Panama Canal, was stopped by authorities and found to be carrying undeclared military supplies.

How to Apologize for Castro's Monopolies

No matter how absurd Castro's monopolistic practices are, there's always some Cuba "expert" who will try to rationalize them.

Case and point: The Castro regime's ridiculous "reform" to purportedly allow Cubans to purchase cars (from the government) without special permission (from the government). Moreover, at prices no Cuban can afford (e.g. $262,000 for a Peugeot).

This has earned the Castro regime international ridicule.

But apparently, we're just not sophisticated enough to understand the rationale behind Castro's decree.

(Note how simply ending the Castro's monopoly -- the root of all these economic distortions -- is not the problem or a solution for these "experts".)

According to the AP:

[A]nalysts say it seems the measure was designed to work that way.

"At those prices, they obviously didn't want to sell many cars," said Philip Peters, president of the Virginia-based Cuba Research Center. "And they're not."

Peters suggested officials simply don't see it as a priority and would rather spend what little hard currency the country has on things like food and industrial inputs.

"I think there's only one explanation ... the government does not want to use its foreign exchange reserves to import cars for a retail market," he said. "So therefore the only way that it's worth it to them, to import a car for $20,000 and then sell it retail, is to soak up $50,000 worth of liquidity."

Some islanders initially hoped authorities would adjust prices downward when they got a sense of what the market would bear. That happened when cellphones first appeared in Cuba more than a decade ago.

However, a recent tour of several dealerships in Havana found the same 400 percent markups as before. Not a single potential client was in sight. Employees refused to speak to reporters, though one confirmed that prices have not budged.

There are no publicly available statistics on how many vehicles circulate in Cuba, but visitors to Havana marvel at how empty the streets are for a city of about 2 million people.

Jorge Pinon, a Latin America energy expert at the University of Texas, said Cuba's reluctance to sell cars isn't out of fear of insufficient fuel. The country gets tens of thousands of barrels of oil a day on preferential terms from Venezuela.

But Pinon noted that a huge infusion of vehicles would test the creaky transportation infrastructure of Cuba, where potholes can go unfilled for years and traffic lights are scarce.

Castro Reaffirms His Import Monopoly

From Cuban state media:

New Customs rules aim to curtail illegal imports, profiteering

The Cuban Customs agency has issued new regulations to control the massive flow of goods brought in from abroad by Cuban travelers.

The Cuban Customs agency has issued new regulations to control the massive flow of goods brought in from abroad by Cuban travelers to be sold for profit, several official publications announced last week.

Resolutions 206, 207 and 208 of General Customs of the Republic (AGR) and Resolution 300 of the Ministry of Finance and Prices (MFP) will take effect on Sept. 1, the daily Juventud Rebelde reported, citing the Justice Ministry’s Official Gazette No. 30.

The updating of the Customs policy applied since 2011 comes after agency officials noticed “the large volume of imports made by natural persons intended for commercial sale and profiteering, under the protection of rules established for the importation [of goods] without commercial purpose,” the newspaper says.

The new rules are intended “to protect our economy and stimulate the production and sale in our country” of goods that are available on the island or can be produced there.

For years now, many Cubans who live abroad, or have traveled abroad, have been returning to their homeland with enormous amounts of merchandise that, they claim, is personal property but that they sell in private transactions or through street vendors.

Normally, the merchandise is assessed by Customs at the personal rate, not the commercial rate. But all that is going to change this year.

The new regulations “establish new limits to the quantities of products, which will enable [Customs] to determine the commercial nature of the importations made by natural persons,” Juventud Rebelde says. A new “Appraisal List” is established to assess the value of non-commercial importations made by travelers.

Much of the importation is done by paid messengers or couriers known as “mules” who commute constantly to Cuba, carrying merchandise they claim to be theirs but that, in fact, is meant for commercial resale at a profit.

Also, a new tax/fee schedule is applied to unaccompanied merchandise sent by natural persons abroad by air, sea, or postal services.

According to Resolution 206, a study done by Customs indicated the need “to modify the quantities that Customs will take into account to determine the limit of the commercial nature of the importations done by natural persons, according to the type of article or product in question, when — by its nature, quantity, functions or repeated importation — it is shown that [the importation] is made with commercial objectives.”

If a Customs inspector determines that the importation is not personal but commercial, he may confiscate all of it, except for the carrier’s personal effects. The total value of the articles brought in (other than personal effects) may not exceed 1,000 convertible pesos (CUC) or US$1,000.

Putin in Havana: Seeking an Ally or a Satellite?

By Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez in The Huffington Post:

Putin In Havana, Seeking an Ally or a Satellite?

"These are the last sweets!" The cry could be the simple proclamation of a candy seller, but I heard it 23 years ago at my high school in the countryside and it was the first evidence I had of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The person shouting was Olga, a student who resold what the wives of the Russian technicians in Alamar gave her. She was the bridge between our Cuban money, worth less every day, and a series of products such as candy and canned goods "Made in USSR." I remember this teenager, who warned us of the coming of shortages, like a blind Tiresias, alerting us to the adiós of the "bowling pins" (as we called the Russians).

The old relationship with the Kremlin comes to mind now, with Vladimir Putin's visit to Cuba. We have seen the official delegation on national television with its businesslike demeanor in suits and ties, no longer speaking of Marxism-Leninism or the dictatorship of the proletariat. They look different, but so much the same. The same glance from above they once had when they knew our island was just a small domino in the game of power. They come looking for alliances, to define the contours of those blocks they are reassembling -- right before our eyes -- in a new return of the Cold War. We are one step away from returning to our old status as a satellite, diminished before Moscow's power, its oil, the debt relief it just granted us.

Not a single official commentator has hinted at the dangers entailed in this approach, nor to the Russian government's need to use Latin America as a diplomatic "launching pad" against its old enemy, the United States. In the midst of this renewed confrontation among the great powers, we are trapped as a disposable and negotiable part, as the case may be. The risk is such that I again remember Olga and the last Soviet candies she offered us in that dorm. Those sweets in extinction predicted an end, the goodies being announced today, like a new airport and possible Russian investment in the Port of Mariel project, compromise our future. You don't have to be blind, nor Tiresias, to realize it.

Another Suspicious North Korean Vessel in Cuba

Monday, July 14, 2014
Last year, the Chong Chon Gang was caught red-handed smuggling 240 tons of illegal weapons from Cuba to North Korea.

There were at least seven other North Korean vessels that made similar trips to Cuba in recent years. Who know what got away.

Currently, there is another vessel, Mu Du Bong, taking the same route in Cuba and trying to avoid detection.

Could the Castro and Kim regimes be so brazen?

Absolutely, for they have -- thus far - gotten away scot-free for their previous international sanctions violations.

As we warned earlier this year on this issue -- inaction breeds impunity.

From Forbes:

North Korean Ship Tests the Waters Near America's Shores

It’s not often that North Korean-flagged freighters turn up near America’s shores, but when they do, they deserve attention. North Korea has a prolific record of arms smuggling, narcotics dealing, counterfeiting, terrorist ties and missile and nuclear proliferation. So, let’s hope U.S. authorities are keeping a close eye on a North Korean cargo ship called the Mu Du Bong, which late last month called at Cuba, then vanished from the commercial shipping grid for more than a week. This past Thursday, July 10, the Mu Du Bong reappeared at Havana, then began steaming north of Cuba, and as of this writing is cruising the Gulf of Mexico, not all that far from the Mexican port of Tampico — or for that matter, the coast of Texas.

The Mu Du Bong’s mission could be entirely legitimate. But its behavior bears some disturbing similarities to last year’s voyage of another North Korean freighter, the Chong Chon Gang, which last summer sailed into the Caribbean, picked up an illicit load of weapons in Cuba, and got caught trying to smuggle its cargo through the Panama Canal.

Acting on a tip, Panamanian authorities searched the Chong Chon Gang. They discovered some 240 tons of arms and related materiel, including two disassembled MiG-21 jet fighters, additional MiG engines, surface-to-air missile system components, night vision goggles and ammunition — all hidden under more than 200,000 bags of Cuban sugar.

Documents found on board the Chong Chon Gang proved a trove of information for members of the United Nations Panel of Experts on North Korea sanctions, who summarized some of their findings in a UN report released this past March. The U.N. investigators were able to reconstruct an array of techniques with which the Chong Chon Gang tried to hide its illicit mission. They concluded that both the arms shipment and the related transaction between North Korea and Cuba had violated U.N. sanctions on North Korea.

The U.N. report describes how the Chong Chon Gang set out in mid-2013 from North Korea, took on fuel in a Russian Far East port, crossed the Pacific and transited the Panama Canal into the Caribbean. The ship then disappeared from the commercial shipping grid by switching off its onboard transponder, the Automatic Identification System (AIS), with which vessels for reasons of maritime safety are required to signal their identity and real-time location.

While its transponder was switched off, the Chong Chon Gang discharged cargo in Havana, then drifted around north of Cuba for about 10 days, then made a covert stop at the Cuban port of Mariel — where the weapons were loaded on board. The ship then called at another Cuban port, Puerto Padre, where the sugar, a legitimate cargo, was loaded on top on the contraband.

Now comes the Mu Du Bong, a North Korean-flagged general cargo ship, launched in 1984. This vessel is named after a hill in North Korea near Mount Paektu, a locale central to the mythology with which North Korea’s totalitarian regime has deified its founding tyrant, Kim Il Sung.

According to ship-tracking information on Lloyd’s, the Mu Du Bong has spent the past three years plying the coast of China, close to North Korea. In April, that changed. The Mu Du Bong called at the Russian Far East port of Nakhodka, then crossed the Pacific, transited the Panama Canal in mid-June, and made for Cuba. On June 25, she signaled on AIS a few miles off the port of Mariel; then signaled again on June 29 and 30 from the nearby port of Havana.

Then, for nine straight days, from July 1-9, the Mu Du Bong stopped signaling on AIS, and disappeared from the commercial shipping grid. It’s possible the ship was simply sitting quietly at anchor. But there are echoes here not only of the Chong Chon Gang, but of a number of other North Korean-flagged freighters which over the years have followed this pattern of dropping off the grid in the vicinity of Cuba. In congressional testimony last September, illicit-trafficking expert Hugh Griffiths, of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, described this practice as “a common risk indicator of maritime trafficking.” (Iran in recent years has used the same tactic to mask sanctions-busting activities of its oil tankers) [...]

On the Equasis shipping database, the Mu Du Bong is listed as owned by the Mudubong Shipping Co Ltd, in Pyongyang, with an address care of Taedonggang Sonbak Co Ltd, also in Pyongyang. According to the 2014 UN panel of experts report on North Korea sanctions, the commercial operator for Taedonggang Sonbak is another Pyongyang-based company, called Ocean Maritime Management Company Ltd — which was the commercial operator for the arms-smuggling Chong Chon Gang, and “played a key role in arranging the shipment of the concealed cargo of arms and related materiel.”

The questions multiply. Who is providing insurance for the Mu Du Bong? (Lloyd’s, usually a source for such information, shows nothing). With a number of North Korean banks under U.S. sanctions, who paid the fees for the Mu Du Bong’s passage last month through the Panama Canal?

What might the U.S. do? To date, the U.S. government has not imposed sanctions on North Korean vessels. If the Mu Du Bong heads home by way of the Panama Canal, presumably Panama’s authorities could be asked, politely, to check the cargo. But there is no guarantee this ship will head back through the canal. This is not the Mu Du Bong’s first trip to Cuba. She called there previously, in 2009. On that trip, the Mu Du Bong entered the Caribbean via the Panama Canal, but exited by a different route. After calling at Cuba she plied the Atlantic for months between Latin America and West Africa, with port calls in Brazil, Ghana, the Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone and Senegal, before heading around the Horn of Africa and back to East Asia with stops enroute in Qatar, Bangladesh, Vietnam and Singapore.

Perhaps it’s unlikely that North Korea would so brazenly attempt another smuggling run so close to America’s shores, so soon after the seizure of the Chong Chon Gang. But in dispatching the Mu Du Bong via the Panama Canal to Cuba, Pyongyang is at the very least sticking a thumb in America’s eye, and quite possibly testing the waters for future smuggling runs.

Over 100 Ladies in White Arrested (Again)

Over 100 members of The Ladies in White were arrested yesterday by the Castro regime.

After attending Mass at Santa Rita Church in Havana, the peaceful female activists marched together towards the sea to commemorate -- by placing flowers in the water -- the 20th anniversary of the "13 de Marzotugboat massacre.

They were intercepted by dozens of police officers and secret police officials that arrested them and mounted them onto three buses.

The arrests were witnessed by an AFP reporter, who is apparently the only foreign journalist in Cuba that doesn't take Sunday off.

This is the 53rd Sunday in a row that members of The Ladies in White are arrested throughout Cuba.

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

More "reform" you can't believe in.

Tweet of the Day: On Ladies in White Arrest

From U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere, Roberta Jacobson:

20th Anniversary: A Massacre That Will Never Be Forgotten

Sunday, July 13, 2014
Today is the 20th anniversary of this brutal massacre by the Castro dictatorship:

"In the early morning hours of July 13, 1994, three boats belonging to the Cuban State and equipped with water hoses attacked an old tugboat that was fleeing Cuba with 72 people on board. The incident occurred seven miles off the Cuban coast, outside the port of Havana. The Cuban State boats attacked the tugboat with their prows, while at the same time spraying everyone on the deck of the boat, including women and children, with pressurized water. The pleas to stop the attack were in vain, and the old boat-named the '13 of March' - sank, with a toll of 41 deaths, including ten children."

-- Ted Koppel, ABC's Nightline.

The victims:

Abreu Ruíz, Angel René. Age: 3.
Alcalde Puig, Rosa María. Age: 47.
Almanza Romero, Pilar. Age: 31.
Alvarez Guerra, Lissett María. Age: 24.
Anaya Carrasco, Yaltamira. Age: 22.
Balmaseda Castillo, Jorge Gregorio. Age: 24.
Borges Alvarez, Giselle. Age: 4.
Borges Briel, Lázaro Enrique. Age: 34.
Carrasco Sanabria, Martha Mirilla. Age: 45.
Cayol, Manuel. Age: 56.
Enríquez Carrazana, Luliana. Age: 22.
Fernández Rodríguez, María Miralis. Age: 27.
Feu González Rigoberto. Age: 31
García Suárez, Joel. Age: 20.
Góngora, Leonardo Notario. Age: 28.
González Raices, Amado. Age: 50.
Guerra Martínez, Augusto Guillermo. Age: 45.
Gutiérrez García, Juan Mario. Age: 10.
Levrígido Flores, Jorge Arquímedes. Age: 28.
Leyva Tacoronte, Caridad. Age: 5.
Loureiro, Ernesto Alfonso. Age: 25
Marrero Alamo, Reynaldo Joaquín. Age: 48.
Martínez Enriquez, Hellen. Age: 5 Months.
Méndez Tacoronte, Mayulis. Age: 17.
Muñoz García, Odalys. Age: 21.
Nicle Anaya, José Carlos. Age: 3.
Pérez Tacoronte, Yousell Eugenio. Age: 11.
Perodín Almanza, Yasser. Age: 11.
Prieto Hernández, Fidencio Ramel. Age: 51.
Rodríguez Fernández, Xicdy. Age: 2.
Rodríguez Suárez, Omar. Age: 33.
Ruíz Blanco, Julia Caridad. Age: 35.
Sanabria Leal, Miladys. Age: 19.
Suárez Esquivel, Eduardo. Age: 38.
Suárez Esquivel, Estrella. Age: 48.
Suárez Plasencia, Eliécer. Age: 12.
Tacoronte Vega, Martha Caridad. Age: 35
And 4 more that still remain unidentified.

They will never be forgotten.