Congress: Sanction Cuban Officials Responsible for Arms Trafficking to North Korea

Saturday, July 26, 2014
Members of the U.S. House of Representatives have written to the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, asking that Cuban officials and entities involved in arms smuggling to North Korea be placed on the U.N. Security Council's sanctions violators list and face consequences for their illegal actions.

The letter was signed by U.S. Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL), Albio Sires (D-NJ), Chris Smith (R-NJ), Matt Salmon (R-AZ), Ron DeSantis (R-FL), Jeff Duncan (R-SC), and Sean Duffy (R-WI).

Below is the text of the letter:

July 15, 2014

The Honorable Samantha Power
U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations
The United Nations
760 United Nations Plaza
New York, NY 10017

Dear Ambassador Power:

We are writing to respectfully ask you to use the full weight of your office to urge the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), and its Member States, to act within the scope of UNSC resolutions 1718, 1874 and 2094, and designate those individuals and entities involved in the Chong Chon Gang arms shipment from Cuba to North Korea in July 2013 as UNSC sanctions violators.

As you know, following the interdiction of the Chong Chon Gang by the Panamanian authorities, the Security Council requested that the Panel of Experts established pursuant to UNSC resolution 1874 provide a full and detailed report to the Council with its findings and recommendations regarding this incident. The Panel concluded that North Korea’s actions represented a violation of UN Security Council resolutions 1718, 1874 and 2094. Further, the Panel found that the arms on board the ship, destined for North Korea, were of Cuban origin and as such, the Cuban dictatorship was in direct violation of:

· Paragraphs 8 (a) (i) of resolution 1718, as modified by paragraph 10 of resolution 1874, prohibiting the direct or indirect supply, sale or transfer to North Korea of all arms and related materiel; and

· Paragraph 8 (c) of resolution 1718 and paragraph 9 of resolution 1874, as clarified by paragraph 7 of resolution 2094, adopted to prevent the provision of technical training advice, services or assistance related to the provision, manufacture, maintenance or use of such arms or materiel by North Korea, its nationals or from its territory;

Pursuant to paragraph 12 of UNSC resolution 1718, a Security Council Committee was established with a mandate to take action on alleged violations of measures imposed by paragraph 8 of UNSC resolution 1718, and to designate additional individuals and entities subject to the measures imposed by paragraphs 8 (d) and 8 (e) of the resolution.

Therefore, in accordance with applicable law, rules and regulations, we respectfully request that you submit for designation the names of certain Cuban regime and military officials that you know to be connected to these sanctions violations for consideration by the Committee, and that you use the full weight of your office to encourage the other Security Council members to support these efforts. We also request copies of any correspondence your office has had with the Panel of Experts as it relates to the Chong Chon Gang incident.

Thank you for your attention to this important matter. We look forward to your prompt response.

A Question That Needs to be Asked

From The Miami Herald:

Payá family launches new effort for plebiscite in Cuba

On the second anniversary of the death of Cuban opposition leader Oswaldo Payá, his daughter, Rosa María Payá, announced Tuesday that the Christian Liberation Movement (MCL) he founded is preparing a campaign to demand a plebiscite on the island’s future.

Rosa Maria Payá said that the plebiscite, based on her father’s Varela Project, would include one single question: Do you want to participate in free and multi-party elections?

Quote of the Week: On Crist, Castro and Cuba

Despite the Castro brothers’ increased repression of the Cuban people, orchestration of Nicolas Maduro’s brutal actions in Venezuela, and growing relationship with Vladimir Putin, Charlie Crist's continued advocacy for greater engagement with the Cuban dictatorship exposes a flippant and shallow attitude that is not only a very worrisome world view, but it is not in Florida’s best interest.
-- Carlos Lopez-Cantera, Lt. Governor of Florida, Sunshine State News, 7/23/14

Another Unsuccessful Negotiation for Alan Gross' Release

Friday, July 25, 2014
Not sure who's brilliant idea this was.

However, Tesla CEO Elon Musk, Silicon Valley venture capitalist Shervin Pishevar and actor Sean Penn join the long list of dignitaries who have sought to -- unsuccessfully -- reason with the Castro regime for Alan Gross' release.

The list includes senior State Department officials; former U.S. President Jimmy Carter; Reverend Jesse Jackson; former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson; numerous U.S. Senators, including Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Bernie Sanders (D-VT), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ); and over a dozen House Members, including U.S. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and the Congressional Black Caucus.

As we've long argued, since American development worker Alan Gross was unjustly imprisoned by the Castro regime on December 3rd, 2009, the Obama Administration has sought diplomatic engagement and easing sanctions as means to secure his release.

(See "Cuba's American Hostage" in The Wall Street Journal).

Neither have been successful.

The one thing the Administration hasn't tried is tightening sanctions.

Squeeze the Castro regime's income and send an unequivocal message that taking Americans hostage is unacceptable.

Repercussions for Alan Gross' hostage taking are long-overdue.

As was revealed in a Bloomberg article today:

"On Wednesday, Elon Musk, founder of electric-car company Tesla Motors (TSLA), is on the phone recounting how the pair traveled [Musk and Pishevar] to Cuba last year with Sean Penn and ended up negotiating (unsuccessfully) with the Castro government for the release of an American imprisoned there."

More Venezuelan Officials Arrested

This week's indictments against Venezuelan government officials for narcotics trafficking are very similar to those in the 1990s against Cuban regime officials.

Unfortunately, in the 1990s, the Clinton Administration made the political decision to scrap some of the Cuban indictments, namely the federal indictment prepared against General Raul Castro.

Thus far, it seems the Obama Administration has the gumption that the Clinton Administration lacked to proceed with these cases -- or it's just less willing to intervene in prosecutions.

Recently, President Obama deflected pressure from French President Francois Hollande to intervene in the BNP Paribas case.

Obama stated, "The tradition of the United States is that the president does not meddle in prosecutions," he told reporters in Brussels. I do not pick up the phone and tell the attorney general how to prosecute cases that have been brought. I do not push for settlements of cases that have been brought. Those are decisions that are made by an independent Department of Justice."

Kudos.

From The Miami Herald:

Feds charge former high-ranking Chavez aides with protecting drug traffickers

A former Venezuelan judge and his family flew into Miami International Airport with plans for a prepaid, two-week vacation at Disney World.

Benny Palmeri-Bacchi never made it to the Orlando theme park.

He was among three Venezuelans charged in federal drug-trafficking cases that for the first time link former high-ranking officials in the late President Hugo Chávez’s administration to Colombian cartel bosses, prosecutors said Thursday. The ex-officials are accused of accepting bribes in exchange for allowing traffickers to fly cocaine shipments from Venezuela to Mexico and the Caribbean for distribution in the United States.

On Thursday, Palmeri-Bacchi, 46, pleaded not guilty in Miami federal court to providing protection for a convicted Colombian drug trafficker who moved loads of cocaine from Venezuela to the United States.

The one-time judge, accused of impeding the trafficker’s extradition, is at the center of a long-secret criminal investigation targeting a former Venezuelan Interpol director, Rodolfo McTurk, as well as a former military intelligence chief, Hugo Carvajal Barrios, who was arrested in Aruba earlier this week.

Sham Trial Against Venezuelan Opposition Leader Begins

Thursday, July 24, 2014
The Venezuelan government began its sham trial against opposition leader, Leopoldo Lopez.

He has been accused of trumped up charges in connection with the protests that have swept the nation against the government of Nicolas Maduro.

Lopez has been held in isolation since his arrest on February 18th.

Here's what the Venezuelan "justice" system he's facing looks like:

The judge has admitted all of the evidence presented by Maduro's prosecutors. Yet, has denied all of the evidence presented by Lopez's defense attorneys.

The judge will allow 138 witnesses to testify against Lopez. Yet, it will only allow one witness in favor of Lopez.

And before the trial even began, Nicolas Maduro -- acting as judge, jury and executioner -- already dictated his sentence:

"[Lopez] is responsible for these crimes and he has to pay."

Venezuelan General Arrested in Aruba, U.S. Will Seek Extradition

Kudos to U.S. federal prosecutors and diplomats.

From The Wall Street Journal:

Retired Venezuelan General Hugo Carvajal Detained on U.S. Petition

U.S. Alleges Carvajal Has Ties to Drug Trafficking, Colombian Marxist Rebels

A former chief of Venezuelan military intelligence, accused by the U.S. of cocaine trafficking and collaborating with Colombian Marxist rebels, was detained in Aruba at the American government's behest, officials in the Caribbean island and the U.S. said on Thursday.

Hugo Carvajal, a retired military general who was awaiting confirmation as President Nicolás Maduro's consul-general to Aruba, is the highest-ranking Venezuelan official to be arrested on a U.S. warrant.

The detention stands to deepen already strained ties between the U.S. and Venezuela, which has frequently accused Washington of vilifying Venezuelan officials as drug traffickers and plotting to overthrow its government.

A team of investigators in the U.S. attorney's office for the Southern District in New York worked to build the case against Mr. Carvajal, who they allege helped traffickers bring drugs into the U.S.

A former Colombian official who also knows about the allegations against Mr. Carvajal said the U.S. is investigating other Venezuelan officials for allegedly helping traffickers smuggle drugs into the U.S. and collaborating with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

Mr. Carvajal was in a police lockup in Aruba on Thursday evening and unable to comment. In the past, he has denied U.S. government accusations of wrongdoing. The Venezuelan government called for his release, saying that Mr. Carvajal's detention was unlawful and warning that tiny Aruba, which is just 17 miles away, could suffer economic consequences.

Mr. Carvajal had long been targeted by American and Colombian investigators for what they called his active role in shipping Colombian cocaine through Venezuela and on to the U.S.

In 2008, the U.S. Treasury Department put him on a blacklist that prohibited any American entity from doing business with him, alleging that he had protected FARC drug shipments and provided the rebel group with weapons and logistical help. The State Department has classified the FARC as a terrorist group, and many of its leaders are wanted in the U.S.

Part of the purported evidence against Mr. Carvajal, as well as two other high-ranking Venezuelan officials blacklisted by the Treasury Department, had come from messages and memos that Colombia's government said that its commandos found in computer hard drives they recovered from a FARC camp after they bombed it.

In one 2007 missive by the FARC's Luciano Marín, the rebel commander recounted how Mr. Carvajal would be delivering "very powerful bazookas," what intelligence officials believed were rocket-propelled grenade launchers.

Documents found in the computer hard drives also purport to show how Mr. Carvajal provided rebel leaders with an Israeli sniper rifle, ammunition and a box of Russian grenades.

According to the files, which were viewed by The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Carvajal also urged the FARC, which also operates inside Venezuela, to stop indiscriminately kidnapping Venezuelan citizens. He suggested that his government could help the FARC find suitable targets among Venezuela's elites.

Venezuelan government officials, as well as the FARC, said that the documents were forged by Colombian intelligence officials. But an Interpol investigation found no evidence of tampering after studying the computer hard drives, and rebel deserters backed up many of the allegations.

In 2011, the U.S. added a top Venezuelan general, two lawmakers and a leading intelligence official to the Treasury blacklist, also accusing them of drug smuggling and assisting the FARC.

Mr. Carvajal, a wiry former general who was a top aide to former President Hugo Chávez, was detained Wednesday night by the authorities at the Queen Beatrix International Airport in Oranjestad, Aruba, which is part of the Netherlands.

In its statement about the case, Venezuela's foreign ministry said the government "energetically rejects the illegal and arbitrary detention of the Venezuelan diplomatic official." Venezuela also characterized the arrest of Mr. Carvajal by Dutch authorities as a violation of a 1961 international convention governing diplomatic relations.

"The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela issues a firm call for the Kingdom of the Netherlands to rectify this unjust and unfair act," the statement said.

Aruba Prosecutor Peter Blanken told local media on the island that the U.S. had requested Mr. Carvajal's arrest on July 4.

Mr. Carvajal, whose nickname is "el Pollo," or "the Chicken," carries a diplomatic passport, but doesn't have diplomatic immunity because he hasn't been confirmed as consul general, said Ann Angela, spokeswoman for Aruba's prosecutor general's office. She declined to give details on why the arrest order was carried out now, citing privacy concerns.

The U.S. plans to formally solicit extradition, but the process is expected to take time, a U.S. official said. The State Department has 60 days to make an official request, Ms. Angela said.

The U.S. and the Netherlands work closely together on counterdrug operations, patrolling the Caribbean and targeting suspected kingpins.

Mr. Carvajal met with prosecutors on Thursday, and will face a judge on Friday who will determine whether his detention complies with international treaties, Ms. Angela said.

The U.S. Treasury's blacklist often targets suspected major narcotics traffickers and terrorist organizations. Under the designation, any assets Mr. Carvajal owned in the U.S. would have been frozen.

How Obama Could Easily Help Cuba's "Self-Employed"

Last week, the Sun-Sentinel ran an article about efforts in Congress to clamp down on the abuses of "people-to-people" travel, which have become little more than Castro-hosted boondoggles to Cuba.

It's increasingly hard to argue (with a straight-face) that trips led by Castro regime officials (see The Nation's recent tour) or yacht cruises (despite Cubans being prohibited from boarding vessels) help "promote independence from the Cuban authorities," as President Obama stated was the purpose of these trips.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this article was that even anti-sanctions lobbyists agree that these "people-to-people" trips have become Castro-hosted boondoggles.

Of course, their solution would be to exacerbate the problem by allowing unfettered tourism to Cuba, whereby Americans would join the ranks of the millions of Canadians and Europeans that travel to the Cuban military's all-inclusive, isolated beach resorts -- even farther from the Cuban people.

This will eventually earn Americans the same disdain that the Cuban people hold for Canadian and European tourists, who travel to Cuba for cheap resorts, rum, cigars and sex.

Funny, every traveler always points out how the Cuban people love Americans. How could that be? What about sanctions, hostility etc.? The answer is simple: Because the U.S. is the one country that has always opposed the dictatorship. Moreover, because its travelers don't (usually) go to exploit their repression.

Regardless, tourism travel to Cuba would require an Act of Congress. And that's not going to happen until there's genuine democratic reform in Cuba.

As a reminder, 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 in Cuba, 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.

Congress is much more likely to get rid of "people-to-people" travel altogether -- due to the rampant abuses -- than to lift the ban on tourism.

So let's join forces in simply adjusting "people-to-people" travel to make it consistent with the President's stated policy goals.

It's a proposal we made earlier this year -- 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 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.

It's an easy, direct and non-controversial way to help Cuba's "self-employed."

The Nation Goes to Cuba -- Says "Viva Castro!"

Last month, the far-left magazine The Nation, led a "people-to-people" trip to Cuba and returned enchanted by their "interlocutors" -- who just happened to all be Castro regime officials.

The Nation's editor is New York City heiress Katrina vanden Heuvel, who recently penned a column in The Washington Post about the trip, where she unwittingly admitted all of her talking points came from senior Castro regime officials (and intelligence agents).

This week, The Nation published a report of its trip findings.

Highlighted among its findings were various "erroneous assumptions" (or as vanden Heuvel calls them, "worn out fallacies") that their "interlocutors" claim people in the U.S. have about Cuba.

Among these "erroneous assumptions" are such gems as:

-- The military is the key institution in Cuba.

-- Dissent is prohibited and punished.

-- Political opposition groups are the democratic alternative in Cuba.

-- As long as one party remains in power, no democratization is possible.

-- Most youth want to leave Cuba.

-- Average monthly income in Cuba is $20.00

-- Cuban émigrés are exiles.

In case you feel stunned or confused in disbelief -- you're not -- they seriously claim none of the above are true.

Needless to say, The Nation didn't challenge, question or counter any of these "erroneous assumptions."

To the contrary, it proudly seeks to "debunk some of these worn out fallacies that some Americans still believe in."

The Nation's absurdity speaks for itself.

However, can the Obama Administration explain how this propaganda trip benefits the Cuban people or helps "promote their independence from Cuban authorities," as was the President's stated policy purpose for the "people-to-people" travel category?

Tweet of the Day: On Oswaldo Paya and a Free Cuba

By the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Council, Keith Harper:

Quote(s) of the Day: Cuba, Israel and Gaza

Wednesday, July 23, 2014
The Middle East is currently in the midst of a huge tsunami - not because of what is happening in Gaza, but because of events in Syria, Iraq, Libya and elsewhere. This reality is not reflected in some of the United Nations bodies, such as the Human Rights Council, where such states as Cuba and Venezuela approve resolutions condemning Israel.
We will continue to fight terror and continue to fight the hypocrisy and anti-Semitism of bodies such as the UNHRC. When countries such as Cuba, Venezuela and the like, who do not know the concept of human rights, point an accusing finger towards us, it is a sign that we are doing the right things.
--Avigdor Libemran, Israel's Foreign Minister, pursuant to meeting with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 7/23/14

Xi's "Blah-Blah" Trip to Cuba

Over the weekend, Chinese dictator Xi Jingping traveled to Argentina, where he signed finance deals worth $7.5 billion for two hydroelectric plants and a railway project.

China's interest in Argentina is commodity-based, mainly soybeans.

Then, Xi traveled to Venezuela, where he signed a $4 billion finance deal, in exchange for one million barrels of oil per day through 2016.

China's commodity interest in Venezuela is obvious.

Finally, Xi traveled to Havana where he reportedly (according to Cuban state media) signed various cooperation deals, of which no details or amounts were disclosed.

China's interest in Cuba is, well, rhetoric.

Xi's latest visit sounded eerily familiar to his 2011 trip to the island, where he also signed a "host of cooperation deals" -- few of which have seen the light of day.

The big news during Xi's 2011 trip was that China was going to build a $6 billion oil refinery in Cuba.

Imagine the media hype and propaganda.

Needless to say, it never happened.

The Chinese have long been skeptical of doing business with the Castro regime.

As a Wikileak-released 2010 State Department cable revealed:

"(C) Payment problems continue for all countries. Despite once again restructuring all of its official debt in 2009, Japan has yet to see any payments. Even China admitted to having problems getting paid on time and complained about Cuban requests to extend credit terms from one to four years. When France and Canada responded with "welcome to the club", China suggested Canada help secure payment from a Cuban joint venture that includes Canadian firm Sherritt International which is now reportedly receiving its share of profits.

(C) Foreign investors have been treated poorly in Cuba and new investors will demand additional protections and guarantees, according to the French. The Chinese complained that the GOC's insistence on keeping majority control of all joint ventures makes no sense. "No matter whether a foreign business invests $10 million or $100 million, the GOC's investment will always add up to 51%," China's commercial counselor said in visible exasperation. He noted a joint venture to produce high-yield rice that produced a good first harvest but was not sustainable at the GOC-mandated prices. Brazilian investors are taking a longer term view on returns, however, noting some success in raising capital for the refurbishment of the port at Mariel."

Kudos to Reuters for its prudent reporting on Xi's trip this week:

"China's flag flies from leased oil rigs along the northwest coast and a modern container port boasts Chinese equipment, but direct investments are limited to a communications venture established 15 years ago and an onshore oil block in Pinar del Rio province.

Chinese diplomats and businessmen have told Reuters over the years that they had little confidence in Cuba's ability to work efficiently with them, complained about the high cost of doing business, and said Cuba has balked at bringing construction crews in from China to build projects.

Little of the $80 billion China has invested in Latin America and the Caribbean in recent years has been in Cuba."

In stark contrast, the AP's Havana bureau simply regurgitated what Cuban state media released and -- as usual -- unquestionably praised Raul Castro's so-called "reforms."

Tweet of the Day: Castro's Import Monopoly

Tuesday, July 22, 2014
By Cuban blogger and photographer, Yusnaby Perez:

NO Cuban has the right to open a store of imported clothing in #Cuba. The government is the monopoly of imports.

How Cuba's Political Stage is Set Up

Excerpt by Erasmo Calzadilla in The Havana Times:

Cuba’s political stage is set up as follows --

On the one side, we have the people, not the real people but the people presupposed by the Party Guidelines: an innocent people, as helpless as a small child that tells the leaders its problems so that they can solve them.

On the other side of the equation we have the leaders: a group of know-it-all technocrats and responsible patriarchs who know what to do to solve the said problems, provided people work hard and remain disciplined.

If the technocrats wanted (this is the best part) they could solve social problems through unpopular measures, as their super-evil counterparts do in the rest of the world, but their commitment towards the people prevents them from going so far.

Ultimately, I am grateful for such unsubtle politicians, for politicians who think like foremen and bare themselves and call a spade a spade from time to time. I am confident such insolent remarks will someday end up angering Cubans and awakening their civic pride, their dormant dignity and their political awareness. If it happened to me, why can’t it happen to others?

Obama Should Stand With Democratic Forces in Venezuela

By Mike Gonzalez and Andrea Rodriguez in The Daily Signal:

The Deep Roots of the Border Crisis

The violence in Central America that leads to the crisis at our border is not an isolated example of policy gone awry but the tipping point of a failing policy on Latin America. Exhibit 1 is Venezuela. We don’t hear much about Venezuela anymore since the Obama administration let its dictatorial president regain the upper hand.

Yet, Venezuela is the distribution point for much of the drugs that end up in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, which are then shipped from there to the United States. It is estimated that 75 percent of illegal drug flights outbound from South America land in Honduras and originate in Venezuela.

The cartels and street gangs that transship the drugs have overwhelmed the armed forces of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, giving them the No. 1, 4 and 5 highest murder rates in the world. This is why, when Central American parents hear from coyote networks that the Obama administration will give their children asylum, they swallow hard and hand them over to be taken through Mexico and deposited at the Rio Grande.

The Obama administration has known about this complete breakdown of order in our hemisphere for years. In fact, it has contributed to it through its own inaction and refusal to side with democratic forces in the region.

Two courageous Venezuelan journalists daily take personal risks to make sure Venezuela does not descend into a Cuban-style totalitarian dictatorship: David Moran and Gustavo Ocando. The first is the editor of LaPatilla.com, the leading online news publication in Venezuela with 42 million visits per month, and the second is editor of the daily La Verdad, a regional affiliate also with significant reach. These leaders of two of only a dozen opposition media outlets left in Venezuela were in Washington last week to drum up international support for democracy in their home country.

“The Obama administration lost a golden opportunity when it decided not to sanction government officials involved in human rights abuses,” said Moran. The time to act was in February when thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators were taking to the streets daily in Caracas and other Venezuelan cities.

“It was a golden opportunity to deliver a moral blow to the government” of President Nicolas Maduro, he said.

Instead, “the Obama administration handed the baton to Brazil,” said Moran, referring to the Obama administration’s lead-from-behind policy of asking Brazil to be the regional lead on Venezuela.

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, a socialist herself, always has been easy on other socialists from Caracas to Havana. But this is not just a question of Marxist solidarity: Brazil’s construction giant, Odebrecht, has $20 billion in projects in Venezuela and an estimated $1.2 billion invested in Cuba, which explains why Rousseff’s administration is deeply committed to the survival of the two dictatorial regimes.

“The Obama administration asked Rousseff for permission to stand up for freedom in Venezuela, and when Brazil did not give its permission it did not wave the flag of freedom,” said Moran. Ocando rolls his eyes, too, when discussing the administration’s decision to follow Brazil’s lead. “The administration has lost its touch. It is very timid with Venezuela,” said Ocando.

Instead, the State Department counseled the leaders of the demonstrators and the political opposition to sit down and have a dialogue with Maduro, while opposing the sanctions that would have kept pressure on the Maduro government—talks he used to buy time and deflate the street pressure.

Now that the streets are quiet, Maduro once again has the upper hand and has called off the talks. So much for the State Department’s advice.

“The Obama administration has done little or nothing to prevent the repression against political and social actors, including the few independent news outlets that still exist,” Ocando said.

A Venezuela run by Maduro and other chavista henchmen is not in the U.S. national interest. As much as 25 percent of Colombia’s cocaine runs through Venezuela, with which Colombia has a porous 1,375-mile border. Ocando’s paper last year reported how remote indigenous villages near the border have been taken over by drug traffickers, turning the jungle into a scene from a Jack Ryan movie.

Today, said Moran sadly, Venezuela “is a country run by narco-traffickers” and Caracas has 162 murders a year per 100,000 inhabitants.

Previous administrations have dealt with bad actors in our hemisphere by supporting those who share our values, as President Reagan did with President Jose Napoleon Duarte in El Salvador and President George W. Bush with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. Outsourcing policy to a socialist in Brasilia is not how a superpower behaves.

The Administration should send Venezuela’s opposition a clear message of solidarity, and get serious with Maduro by enacting targeted sanctions against key Venezuelan government officials, including revoking their visas and freezing their assets within the United States.

WaPo: Two Years Later, Paya's Death Still Awaits Proper Investigation

Monday, July 21, 2014
From The Washington Post's Editorial Board:

Oswaldo Payá’s death in Cuba two years ago still awaits a proper investigation
 
Two years ago Tuesday, a blue rental car was wrecked off a deserted road in eastern Cuba. In the back seat was Oswaldo Payá, one of Cuba’s best-known dissidents, who had championed the idea of a democratic referendum on the nation’s future. Mr. Payá’s voice was not the loudest against the Castro dictatorship, but it was one of the most committed and determined. On the day of the car crash, he had been trying for more than a decade to bring about a peaceful revolution, one that would empower Cubans to decide their own fate and end the half-century of misrule by Fidel and Raúl Castro.

Mr. Payá endured harassment and intimidation for his efforts. Many of his friends and allies were jailed. He received threats by phone and other warnings, some violent. But he did not give up. On the day of the crash, Mr. Payá was traveling with a young associate, Harold Cepero, across the island to meet with supporters of the Christian Liberation Movement. In the front of the rental car was a visitor from Spain, Ángel Carromero, a leader of the youth wing of that country’s ruling party, and one from Sweden.

The car spun out of control after being rammed from behind by a vehicle bearing state license plates, according to Mr. Carromero. While he and the associate from Sweden survived, Mr. Payá and Mr. Cepero were killed. Mr. Carromero says he was then coerced to confess and subjected to a rigged trial in order to cover up what really happened. Mr. Carromero’s videotaped “confession,” broadcast on television, was forced upon him; he was told to read from cards written by the state security officers. He was sentenced to four years in prison for vehicular homicide and later released to return to Spain to serve out his term.

Since then, there has been no serious, credible investigation of the deaths. Cuba has brushed aside all demands for an international probe that would reveal the truth. Mr. Payá held dual Cuban and Spanish citizenship, but Spain has been shamefully uninterested in getting to the bottom of the story. The truth matters — to show the Castro brothers that they cannot snuff out a voice of freedom with such absolute impunity.

On May 14, Pope Francis received Mr. Payá’s family at his private residence. We don’t know what the pope said, but Mr. Payá’s daughter, Rosa Maria, delivered a letter carrying an impassioned appeal for the cause of democracy and human dignity in Cuba. Hopefully, the pope will keep listening to the voices demanding change in Cuba and speak out for democracy and freedom there. The values that Mr. Payá fought for in Cuba must not be forgotten. Other dissidents are still struggling, despite crackdowns, beatings, jailings and persecution, and they must not be forsaken.

Rosa Maria Paya: Castro Killed My Father, Spain Helped Cover It Up

In The PanAm Post:

Payá: Castro Brothers Killed My Father, Spain Helped Cover It Up

Daughter of Late Cuban Dissident Speaks Out, Demands Independent Investigation

The Payá family has not lost its nerve, nor its hope, in their struggle to clarify the circumstances in which Oswaldo Payá died two years ago. Payá was a prominent activist, member of Cuba’s political opposition, and founder of the Christian Liberation Movement. Tuesday, July 22, marks the second anniversary of the traffic accident that killed Payá, along with 32-year-old Harold Cepero. The cause of that accident remains in doubt.

Rosa María Payá, daughter of the Cuban dissident, has continued to struggle for Cuba; a struggle her father had been fighting since the 1980s. At only 25 years of age, she along with her family have brought Oswaldo Payá’s case before international organizations to request an independent investigation of her father’s death.

The Payá family believes that the Cuban government caused the car crash that killed Oswaldo Payá and Harold Cepero. They say another vehicle rammed into the car carrying Payá, Cepero, and two others: a Swedish man and a Spaniard named Ángel Carromero. Carromero, the driver of the vehicle, is serving out a prison sentence in Madrid for vehicular homicide, despite pleading innocent and demonstrating evidence of an attack.

Rosa María Payá now openly states that she believes Cuba’s government, the European External Action Service, and the Spanish government have conspired to cover up the truth: the Castro brothers murdered her father.

In an interview with the PanAm Post, she explains her reasons behind her controversial allegations. She complains that the Swedish government ceded to the Cuban government’s claims that the Swedish passenger, Aron Modig, suffered from “amnesia” and was unable to contribute to the investigation.

She also says that the Spanish judiciary has repeatedly dismissed requests for an independent investigation as to whether or not Carromero was indeed culpable for the crash.

“The Spanish government knows, and probably knew it before we did, that what happened wasn’t an accident. They received messages from Ángel [Carromero] asking for help in which he said it wasn’t an accident. Ángel has said they didn’t crash into a tree,” explained Rosa María. She further added her regret that the Spanish government has denied Carromero’s request for a pardon, considering the lack of clarity in the incident.

She also states that her father’s case has been a point of division within Spain’s ruling party. The Popular Party is tasked with awarding the Oswaldo Payá Human Rights Prize, even though they do not official support the family’s humanitarian requests.

“Some of the Spanish executive authorities, when they weren’t part of the cabinet, were stronger critics of the Cuban government and friendlier with the Christian Liberation Movement.  They are actively protecting the Cuban government, with their silence and [lack of] action. History will not remember them well,” stated Rosa María.

The only open case that remains considering the possibility of an attack on Payá and Cepero is with the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary, or Arbitrary Executions.

Rosa María Payá also had a message for the US citizens that support Raúl Castro’s reforms. ‘The reforms that took place in Cuba have nothing to do with a democratic transition. There were reforms in China as well, and that doesn’t mean the Chinese are free people.”

“People who want to give money to the Cuban government and deal with the oppressors of the Cuban people, they have the freedom to do it as children of God. While negotiating with the Cuba government, they are not helping a democratic transition.”

The young Payá also said that the changes introduced on the island will only make Cubans more dependent on the government. She says, for example, that the concessions to open a small business are not backed by private property rights.

Click here to listen to the full interview.

U.S. Business Groups Swayed Congress, But Failed to Sway Putin

During the 2012 Congressional debate to establish Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) with Russia, a coalition of business groups -- led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce -- lobbied lawmakers that:

"The United States may not see eye to eye with Russia on many issues - whether in the international arena or on issues related to civil society and democracy. Nevertheless, passing legislation to enact Russia PNTR - a status that Republican and Democratic presidents have approved on an annual basis since 1992 - is an important step in our encouragement of greater transparency and accountability in Russia today. Our businesses can be ambassadors for strong values and principles in Russia - if we have the chance."

Doesn't that sound familiar?

Then, they proceeded to argue:

"Our competitors in Europe, China and elsewhere are pleased to be able to step in and take advantage of meeting Russia's needs not only in infrastructure and modernization of its industrial base, but also the demands of a growing consumer class that is highly educated and appreciates quality. In what should be an exciting time of Russia's market-opening for U.S. business, our executives have been relegated to an 'observer' status - watching as our competitors will snap up contracts that will lock in commercial relationships for years to come."

These business groups use the same, exact talking points to promote ties with all tyrants, whether in Russia, Cuba, Burma or Iran.

And yet, it never turns out the way they say. Why?

Because in the psyche of tyrants -- they feel emboldened by such unilateral concessions, which they interpret as weakness and leverage on their behalf.

Needless to say, PNTR for Russia passed that year -- a vote many Members of Congress now regret.

Recently, these same business groups have also been critical of President Obama's targeted sanctions towards individual Russian enterprises and officials, pursuant to Putin's annexation of the Crimea and aggression in eastern Ukraine.

However, after the tragic shoot-down of a Malaysian Airlines plane this week, The Hill reported: "Business groups fall silent on Russia sanctions."

At last. They should feel ashamed.

Cuba's War on Wi-Fi

Meanwhile, some in the U.S. propose strengthening ETECSA's monopoly and modernizing its infrastructure.

Apparently, they don't understand that ETECSA is the source of the Castro regime's censorship, not the solution.

Thus, the U.S. should continue finding ways to help the Cuban people get around this censorship, not contributing to its perpetrators.

By Cuban blogger Yusnaby Perez in Cubanet:

War Against Wi-Fi

For various weeks now, throughout Cuba, but particularly in Havana, there have been widespread home searches and confiscation of equipment with Wi-Fi technology. ETECSA, the state telecommunications monopoly, arrives at homes, enters and confiscates wireless routers and signal receptors/antennas. The reason for this is that, in the last few years, there has been a rise in Havana and in other municipalities of clandestine networks that virtually connect thousands of Cubans.

Click here (in Spanish) for details.

Same Old Castro

Sunday, July 20, 2014
From The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's Editorial Board:

Same old Cuba

Are those who would normalize U.S. relations with Cuba intelligent enough to decode the signal being sent by an agreement to reopen a Russian “signals intelligence” base there?

Cuban dictator Raul Castro and Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly struck the deal in Havana this month (though Mr. Putin later denied it). Russia supposedly gets to reopen the electronic spying post; Cuba gets off the hook for about 90 percent of its Soviet-era debt to Russia — about $32 billion, according to The New York Times.

Ironically, debt played a role in Mr. Putin's closure of the base in 2001 — because Congress linked its abandonment with restructuring of Russian foreign debt. Technological updates to the listening post in Lourdes, outside Havana and about 150 miles from Florida, could bolster its former capabilities.

At its height, says The Times, Lourdes monitored the U.S. Navy, the U.S. space program and “microwave transmissions of telephone conversations in the southeastern United States” while facilitating communications with Russian spies in America. Heading Cuba's armed forces in 1993, Mr. Castro claimed Lourdes then produced 75 percent of Russia's strategic intelligence on the U.S.

Questions abound over what's left of the old Lourdes facility and to what extent it can or will be constituted, given Russia's struggling economic situation. Thus, whether this spate of power projection is real or faux remains difficult to discern. But the signal for Castro apologists should be that the more things appear to change in Cuba, the more they stay the same.