Vatican Envoy Speaks Truth About Cuba

Saturday, August 30, 2014
In The Miami Herald:

Vatican nuncio in Cuba criticizes government 

In an unusual gesture for a member high in the Catholic Church’s hierarchy in Cuba, the Apostolic nuncio Bruno Musaro spoke openly about Cuba’s “extreme poverty and human and civil degradation.”

Musaro made his controversial remarks while on vacation in Italy after holding a Mass in the San Pio de Pietrelcina park, in the Italian municipality of Vignacastrisi.

The Cuban people are “victims of a socialist dictatorship that has kept them subjugated for the past 56 years,” Musaro said, according to the Italian newspaper, Lecce News24.

“I’m thankful to the pope for inviting me to this island, and I hope to leave once that the socialist regime has disappeared indefinitely,” said Musaro, a Vatican ambassador living in Cuba since 2011. “Only liberty can bring hope to the Cuban people,” he said.

The Italian newspaper said his remarks were “a cry for help, a call to the weapons of conscience and common sense” made by the diplomatic envoy from the Holy See, who also said regarding Cubans, “The only hope for a better life is to escape the island.”

The monsignor compared the realities of his native Italy and Cuba and warned Italians that they should make note of the fact that “in Cuba, a doctor makes 25 euros a month, and to live with dignity, some professionals go work as waiters during the night.”

“In Cuba, everything is controlled by the state, even milk and meat. Eating lamb is a luxury, and whoever kills one to eat it is arrested and taken to jail,” he said. “Half a century later, and people are still talking about the revolution. It is praised. Meanwhile, people don’t have work and don’t know what to do to feed their own kids,” the archbishop said.

Masuro was born in Andrani in the Lecce region, nearby to Vignacastrisi, where he officiated the Mass. He was named a Vatican representative in Cuba in 2001 after a long career within the Catholic Church.

He was ordained as a priest in 1971 and began his diplomatic service in 1977. He was previously designated apostolic nuncio in other Latin American countries such as Panama (1994), Guatemala (2004) and Perú (2009).

According to a source of the Apostolic branch in Cuba, he is currently “on vacation” in Italy and isn’t expected back until three weeks from now.

The source claimed to be unaware of the comments made by Masuro and denied that his mission in Cuba had ended, although other media outlets suggested it had.

The archbishop’s comments were given in Polish and on Vatican Radio on its website. They were not given in Spanish or in English.

Masuro’s declarations could bring tension to an era in which the Catholic Church has improved its relationship with Raúl Castro’s government.

Monsignor Felix Perez, adjunct secretary of the Conference of Catholic Bishops, recently told the Italian news agency ANSA that Cuban authorities have approved plans to build two new churches in Santiago de Cuba and Pinar del Río.

The frank nature of Masuro’s criticism contrasts with the caution that high members of the Catholic Church uphold when it comes to topics of politics and social well-being on the island.

Tweet of the Day: Chairman Menendez on Vatican Envoy's Remarks

Cuba: Religious Freedom Violations Continue to Rise

By Frank Calzon in Democracy Digest:

Cuba: Religious Freedom Violations Continue to Rise

The Cuban government continues to repress religious believers and its Office of Religious Affairs, responsible for official permits to worship, continues to monitors and harasses churches, according to a new report from the widely-respected, UK-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide. The well-documented report, which covers a period of 19 months ending in July of this year, includes details of the destruction of churches and notes that the Office of Religious Affairs is an official organ of the Cuban Communist Party.

Religious leaders say that if there is a need for supervision of the churches, it should be done by the government, and not by an arm of the ruling Party. This unique situation was alluded to by Pope John Paul II when he visited Cuba and called on the authorities to set aside “antiquated structures.”

The report calls on the European Union, the United States government, and other governments around the world not to ignore both religious repression in Cuba and the fact that “over the past decades the Castro regime has proved adept at sleight of hand tricks to convince the international community that it is committed to improvements in the human rights situation. Its approach to religious freedom has been no different.”

“Despite government claims of increased respect for religious freedom, reported violation of religious freedom in Cuba continued to increase dramatically,” CSW says. The report entitled “Cuba: Religious Freedom” says that “government agents continued to employ more brutal and public tactics than witnessed in the first decade of the millennium.” Christians in Cuba continue to report varying levels of discrimination in educational institutions and in their places of employment,” CSW says.

The scarcity of Bibles and other religious literature is due to “harsh government restrictions on the import of Bibles and other religious materials and a lack of access to printing infrastructure in the island.” The organization says that it has received “sporadic reports of violent beatings of Protestant Pastors and lay workers in different parts of the country.”

“Week after week, scores of women were physically and violently dragged away from Sunday morning services by state security agents,” and in many parts of the island, particularly in rural areas “the government has destroyed church properties.”

“On 2 July 2014 Cuban government agents including state security and Cuban Communist Party officials, destroyed a church and home affiliated with the Apostolic Movement in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba. The unannounced demolition of the Establishing the Kingdom of God Church began at 6am while the owners of the home and their young children were sleeping inside.”

“They arrived and violently broke down the front door which was locked, the police entered with batons alongside a group of men carrying machetes. They began to destroy and occupy the properties of the pastor and the church,” according to Pastor Marcos A. Perdomo Silva, a church leader.

“Photos taken at the scene show uniformed officers directing a bulldozer leveling the area where the church and home stood… Pastor Esmir Torreblanca, his wife, and his two children aged two and seven were left homeless…The following Sunday, members of the church met at the site for open air worship.”

Image: Pastor Esmir Torreblanca standing in the ruins of his church and home.

Internet for Cubans vs. Helping Castro's Censorship

Friday, August 29, 2014
A centerpiece of recent lobbying efforts by Cuba sanctions foes is for U.S. companies to be allowed to invest in the Castro regime's telecom monopoly ("ETECSA").

Pursuant to the 1992 Cuba Democracy Act -- and subsequent regulations -- there's nothing in U.S. law that prevents telecommunications and Internet services between the United States and Cuba.

The one thing that is prohibited by law is U.S. investment in Castro's domestic telecommunications network, namely its monopoly ("ETECSA").

Yet, that's exactly the latest spin by anti-sanctions advocates.

Just recently, former State Department official (and now Richard Feinberg's cohort at UC-San Diego), Charles Shapiro, wrote:

"Anything we can do on our end to facilitate real Internet access in Cuba is worthwhile, even if the 'price' of doing that is working with the Cuban government telecommunications monopoly."

(This was also mentioned in the the Council of the Americas' derelict Cuba letter.)

We recalled this as we posted a tweet from Cuban blogger and democracy activists, Yusnaby Perez, who reminded us today:

"Internet and Cable TV services provided by the Government, can only be contracted by foreign residents in Cuba."

In other words, Internet services are available in Cuba. The only reason the Cuban people are unable to access them is because the Castro regime doesn't allow them to.

So how exactly would further enriching Castro's ETECSA monopoly change this?

Perhaps Mr. Shapiro is unaware that Telecom Italia owned 27% of ETECA from 1995-2011.

(The rest is owned by the Castro regime's Ministry of Information and Communication, led by ruthless General -- and former Minister of the Interior -- Ramiro Valdes.)

Did Telecom Italia help Cubans access the Internet through its investment?

Perhaps Mr. Shapiro is unaware that ETECSA is responsible, together with Castro's secret police, for tapping phone lines, monitoring conversations, Internet censorship and persecuting Cubans with home-made satellite dishes.

Should U.S. companies partake or contribute to such activities?

Perhaps Mr. Shapiro is unaware that the Cuba-Venezuela fiber optic cable was laid by France's Alcatel-Lucent.

Has France's Alcatel-Lucent helped Cubans access the Internet through its fiber optic cable?

The evidence clearly shows that investments in ETECSA only help Castro's censorship and control.

Instead, why not push for companies like Google to provide Internet connectivity -- via satellite -- to the Cuban people?

This can -- and should -- be done with or without Castro's approval.

Another Chapter in the EU-Cuba Two-Step

Upon completion of this week's second round of European Union-Cuba talks, the EU's negotiator, Christian Leffler, stated that there had been "substantial progress" made in the talks.

But only trade and investment cooperation were discussed, of course.

Leffler admitted in the follow-up press conference that political and institutional issues were not discussed.

He then became defensive about the rationale for avoiding these key issues -- let alone basic human rights.

A win-win for Castro.

Tweet of the Day: Internet for Foreigners

Thursday, August 28, 2014
By Cuban blogger and photographer, Yusnaby Perez:

Quote of the Day: Only Freedom Can Bring Hope

I’m thankful to the pope for inviting me to this island, and I hope to leave once that the socialist regime has disappeared indefinitely. Only liberty can bring hope to the Cuban people.
-- Msgr. Bruno Masaro, The Vatican's Apostolic Nuncio ("Ambassador") in Cuba, Lecce News 24, 8/28/14

Should the U.S. Follow Europe's Fickle Lead?

In its latest edition, Americas Quarterly debates:

"Will warming Cuba-EU ties open up U.S.-Cuba relations?"

On one side, Sarah Stephens, Executive Director of the Castro-friendly, Center for Democracy in the Americas, argues that the U.S. should follow Europe's lead.

(You can read her ir-rationale here.)

It's really hard to argue with a straight-face that we should take Europe's lead in any foreign policy issue, particularly as the world witnesses first-hand Europe's fickleness in dealing with Russia's Vladimir Putin.

(Don't miss this great description of Europe's fickleness.)

Think about it: Ukraine finds itself a victim of Russian aggression simply because it wanted closer ties to Europe. Despite this, Europe has been unwilling to challenge Putin and defend Ukraine -- for it's too busy fawning all over Russia's oil and oligarchs. Instead, the U.S. has had to take the lead to defend Ukraine (and vicariously Europe's long-term interests).

Why in the world would anyone trust Europe in dealing with any tyrant?

Unless, of course, you're rooting for the tyrants.

The counter-argument in Americas Quarterly is written by Cuban labor rights activist, Joel Brito.

Read his rationale below:

The EU is engaged in a discussion that will yield no change in human rights conditions on the island. The U.S. would be wise not to follow the EU's lead.

In March, the European Union (EU) and the Cuban government announced a renewal of bilateral talks on trade and investment. Lured by Cuba’s proposed social and economic reforms, including a new foreign investment law, the expansion of self-employment, and loosened travel restrictions, the EU agreed to return to the negotiating table for the first time since the establishment of the Common Position in 1996, including human rights and democracy in the discussion on improved economic relations.

But it would be misguided to assume that the Cuban reforms are a sign of genuine change within the regime. Rather, they represent an attempt to adapt the revolution’s principles of “protect and perpetuate” to changing circumstances: a strategy that has allowed the regime to survive repeated economic and political shocks over the past 55 years.

Less than a decade ago, then-President Fidel Castro was singing a different tune about cooperation with the European Union. During a speech on July 26, 2003, he declared, “The government of Cuba, out of a basic sense of dignity, relinquishes any aid or remnant of humanitarian aid that may be offered by the European Commission and the governments of the European Union[....] Cuba does not need the European Union to survive, develop and achieve what you will never be able to achieve.”

Trusting that this logic long-held by the Castros—then Fidel, now Raúl—has changed will cost current negotiators and potential investors dearly.

If the talks continue, it wouldn't be surprising if—soon after the contract with the EU is signed—European business-people are arrested for corruption, bank accounts are frozen, and Cuban officials start employing, again, their bullying strategy of “support me unconditionally, or go with your investments somewhere else.”

Christian Leffler, the EU’s managing director for the Americas of the European External Action Service, said during his April visit to the island that the human rights debate will not be among the main topics at the relaunch of the conversations. Is the EU being flexible or simply conceding a pivotal democratic issue to avoid confrontation?

When the bilateral talks were first announced, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez said he hoped a rapprochement between Cuba and the EU could create an opportunity to move the needle on U.S.-Cuba relations. But while the issue of human rights appears to be, at best, a secondary priority for the EU talks, its absence is an absolute deal-breaker for the U.S., where the political debate around Cuba is already polarized.

For decades, various U.S. administrations have made the defense of human rights for Cuban citizens a priority in U.S. relations with the Cuban regime and used the embargo as a tool to pressure the regime. As the Helms-Burton Act of 1996 states, the U.S. has a “moral obligation to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

This has left Cuba-U.S. relations at an impasse. With the embargo still in place and tension still simmering over jailed USAID contractor Alan Gross, the odds of strengthening diplomatic ties are slim to none. Unless the White House decides to turn a deaf ear to the opinion of the majority on the island and change the nature of its relationship with the Castros—through executive action, without a consensus among the different actors linked to this issue—the needle won’t move.

Moreover, any possibility that Cuba might be moved off the State Department’s State Sponsors of Terrorism list was extinguished when the North Korean ship Chong Chon Gang was discovered last July to be carrying tons of undeclared weapons from Cuba to North Korea. Cuban authorities claimed the cargo was “obsolete defensive weaponry” that was going to be “repaired and returned” (shipped undeclared and hidden under sacks of sugar, of course).

The fact is, the EU has placed itself in a position of negotiating with a government that has repeatedly attempted to violate international laws, and that routinely eavesdrops on its guests, recording all conversations and videotaping the activities of all leading who visit the country.

It will take a lot more than superficial reforms to bring the U.S. to the table.

Those who fear losing investment opportunities to the EU or other countries are ignoring the fact that the terms of foreign investment are still mediocre at best, even after the new foreign investment law that went into effect in June. For example, while foreign companies will now be allowed to own a 100 percent stake in a venture on the island, they will be denied the tax breaks that are afforded to joint ventures with the Cuban government.

American policymakers should remember that when the current regime collapses under internal and external pressure, Cuba’s natural market (given its geographical situation, and historical and family ties) will be the U.S., to which it will be inevitably and quickly drawn. If the U.S. maintains its current diplomatic stance, political and economic ties with a future democratic Cuba will be assured.

There’s no doubt that U.S. government officials will be watching the Cuba–EU talks closely. For now, though, it will be smart for the U.S. to keep its distance from these negotiations, which have been tainted from the very beginning.

Cuban and European NGOs: Include Civil Society and Political Opponents in Negotiations

Wednesday, August 27, 2014
This week, representatives of the Castro dictatorship and the European Union are meeting in Brussels to discuss a potential new framework for bilateral relations.

(Apparently, the billions that EU companies and tourists have provided the Castro regime over the years hasn't been quite enough.)

It's the second meeting in this ongoing series -- the first was last April in Havana.

Ahead of today's meeting, the "For Another Cuba" ("Por Otra Cuba") campaign, a Havana-based citizen's initiative led by Cuban democracy leader, Antonio Rodiles, has teamed up with the Stockholm-based human rights NGO, Civil Rights Defenders, to issue a "Platform for Discussion on the Current EU-Cuba Negtiations."

You can read the entire document here.

Here's the Executive Summary:

The European Union bilateral relationship with Cuba has always been guided by the promotion of human rights and democracy, as explicitly stated in its “Common Position” toward Cuba. Therefore such values should also form the cornerstone of on-going negotiations between the EU and Cuba regarding the bilateral Political Dialogue and Cooperation Agreement that was initiated in April 2014.

In 2008, the Cuban government took its first positive step towards respecting human rights by signing the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). The following years, Cuba released many political prisoners; including the 75 human rights defenders imprisoned during the spring of 2003. However, Cuba has not taken any further effective steps to ratify or implement the International Covenants. Political persecution and repression continues, while any space for opposition in official Cuban political life remains wholly elusive.

The EU must therefore first seek to include Cuban civil society and political opponents in the negotiation process with the Cuban government in order to ensure legitimacy to the final agreement for the Cuban population.

The EU should then move on to include basic steps regarding the ratification and implementation of the ICCPR and ICESCR, as well as their respective additional protocols in the agreement.

The implementation should be understood, in a first step, as the incorporation of these instruments into the Cuban constitution, and national laws so that basic human rights, such as the right to association, the right to form unions, the right to own property and the right to freedoms of expression, press and movement are guaranteed.

Finally, the EU should ensure that civil society and Cuban political opponents have the opportunity to maintain open dialogue with the EU throughout the follow up process of the agreement.

The 2012 EU agreement with Central America includes chapters on Political Dialogue, Cooperation and Trade. It should constitute a basis for the agreement with Cuba in its first two chapters. When Cuba has ratified the International Covenants and implemented the basic reforms implied, the EU should then open the negotiation process for a beneficial trade agreement and not before. It is therefore a worrying sign at this stage that negotiations already seem to include a trade agreement, although the EU has never communicated this before negotiations commenced.

A fundamental condition, before the EU consider signing such an agreement should stipulate that Cuba promises to comply with its commitment to ratify and implement the International Covenants; sets free all political prisoners and halt the arbitrary arrests of Cuban democracy activists.

Tweet of the Day: U.N. Human Rights Council's Agenda

By Hillel Neurer of the Geneva-based, U.N. Watch:

Spanish Bank Tries to Impede Judgments Against Cuban Regime

Spain's Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria, S.A., ("Banco Bilbao"), filed a motion in a Manhattan federal court seeking to block the families of various Cuban men, who were tortured and assassinated by the Castro regime, from collecting their successful "wrongful death" judgments.

Last Friday, U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein rejected this effort by Banco Bilbao.

Apparently, Banco Bilbao -- one of the few European banks that still keeps a strong presence in Cuba -- felt that profit trumps justice.

It was wrong.

Read Judge Hellerstein's opinion here.

Where Internet Censorship is Strongest

Visit IVPN's new interactive censorship map here.

Cuba is ranked 2nd worst in the world -- following Syria -- regarding obstacle to access.

Thus, regardless of its new fiber optic cable, or past foreign investments in Cuba's telecom monopoly ("ETECSA"), the Castro regime simply keeps raising the barriers to connectivity.

Thus, if companies like Google want to really help the Cuban people, browsers (Chrome) are nice -- except few Cubans have access to use them.

More importantly, it should provide satellite connectivity -- with or without Castro's permission.

It's easy, nothing in U.S. law prevents it and can be done virtually overnight.

From Engadget:

The internet censorship map at a glance

If you're reading this, you probably enjoy open internet access as a matter of course. However, other countries aren't quite so liberal. How do you know where you're truly free? IVPN's new interactive censorship map might just answer that question for you. The site lets you click on a given country to quickly learn about its tendencies to block free speech online, attack critics and shred anonymity. Not surprisingly, very authoritarian governments like China, Cuba and Iran don't score well -- they tend to insist on real names when you post, and will throw you in prison for challenging the internet status quo. Many other countries, like Russia and Venezuela, walk an awkward line between freedom and trying to crush dissent.

The map is far from perfect. There are quite a few gaps, although that's partly dictated by countries that can't or won't offer data (North Korea isn't exactly the sharing type). Also, you may scoff at the nations deemed truly free -- the info comes from 2012, before we knew about Australia's proposed anti-leak measures, American surveillance revelations or the UK's hit-and-miss porn filter. Still, the guide should make it at least a little bit easier to understand where it's safe to speak your mind.

Image of the Day: Kudos to Pierce Brosnan

While in Miami this week, where he's promoting his latest film ("The November Man"), Pierce Brosnan visited with Bay of Pigs veterans at the Brigade 2506 Museum.

He wanted to learn first-hand about their experiences and about the victims of Castro's dictatorship.

Here's an image (courtesy of EFE):

Tweet of the Day: On Violent Repression Against UNPACU

Tuesday, August 26, 2014
By U.S. Assistant Secretary of State, Roberta Jacobson:

Venezuelans (Cubans) Don't Believe Maduro's (Castro's) "Excuses"

According to a new Pew Research survey, over 62% of Venezuelans have a favorable view of the United States.

Meanwhile, only 37% of Venezuelans have a favorable view of the Maduro government's political patron, Castro's Cuba.

This, despite the fact that the Maduro government blames the United States for absolutely everything -- from "spreading cancer" to "assassination plots" to "economic aggression."

Yet, the concern that Maduro will use the United States as an "excuse" -- which it does anyway -- has kept U.S. diplomats paralyzed.

As we've written before in The Hill:

"'Don’t give them an excuse to crack down on dissent,' is a favorite sophism spread among foreign-policy elites, lazy bureaucrats and big-chair academics. Dictators love it.  Why? Because as soon as it’s uttered, it shifts blame, immunizes them and effectively silences freedom’s advocates, even in the face of egregious violations of human rights and crimes against humanity."

But also, the people of those countries don't believe their "excuses."

This is also a favorite talking point of those who lobby against Cuba sanctions -- that it gives Castro an "excuse" for its failings.

Yet, time and time again, every survey conducted in Cuba shows that less than 10% of Cubans believe the U.S. embargo is the cause of their ills. Moreover, they believe that if you lift sanctions, it would only have a limited effect on their economic well-being, as Castro's monopolies control all foreign trade and investment.

In other words, Cubans (like Venezuelans) don't believe Castro's "excuses."

Why? Because they're not stupid.

Image of the Day: Female Activist Beaten by Cuban Agents

Monday, August 25, 2014
The image below is of Yunaisi Carracedo, a democracy activist with the Cuban Patriotic Union (UNPACU) in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba.

She was beaten by Castro's agents during a weekend crackdown that resulted in the arrest of over 130 of UNPACU's members.

Yunaisi sustained injuries to the face, arm and hand.

Every weekend, Cuba's dictatorship violently attacks peaceful, female activists -- with impunity.

More "reform" you can't believe in.

Propagandists, Anti-Sanctions Lobbyists or "Moderate" Businessmen

The following op-ed in The Hill could have been written by any of Cuba's propagandists, anti-sanctions lobbyists or Cuban-American "moderate" businessmen:

Note they make the exact same arguments:

1. Iran's (Cuba's) regime is committed to dialogue and reform;
2. Sanctions hurt Iran's (Cuba's) "private sector";
3. American business would make everything better; and
4. The fundamentalists are in the U.S. Congress, not Tehran (Havana).

By Iranian-American "moderate" businessman, Amir Handjani, in The Hill:

Sanctions cause Iranian airplane crashes

On August 10, a Sepahan Air regional airliner crashed in a neighborhood in densely populated Tehran, killing 39. This latest incident is just one in a spate of air accidents in Iran, where the imposition of sanctions by the West has severely impacted the safety of civilian aircraft.

In the last 25 years there have been more then 200 accidents involving Iranian planes, resulting in 2000 deaths and many more debilitating injuries. With this abysmal safety record, the odds an Iranian air passenger will die on a flight are 100 times higher than those for passengers on the world’s major carriers. Statistics like this, and the human tragedies they belie, demonstrate how the sanctions levied against Iran serve to collectively punish the Iranian people

The crashed aircraft was an Iranian-built Iran-140, a domestic version of the Russian Antonov An-140. Skeptics may argue that it was the outdated Soviet-era design that explains the plane’s lack of airworthiness. However Iranians have little choice but to fly these planes because U.S. sanctions prohibit Iran from purchasing Boeing or Airbus planes on the open market, even second hand. Iran’s aging civilian fleet includes planes, which first entered service before the Iranian Revolution in 1979, when the U.S. first began to institute sanctions on the country. In the subsequent years, airlines have struggled to source parts and technical support for their aircraft.

A 2005 report by the International Civil Aviation Organization, a UN body, noted that the “United States sanctions against the Islamic Republic of Iran have adversely affected the safety of civil aviation.” The authors urged American regulators to recognize that “Aviation safety, as it affects human life and human rights, stands above political differences.” Since 2005, there have been 700 fatalities in air accidents. Unfortunately, sanctions policy has little concern for human life. Although under the interim nuclear deal Iran has been allowed to purchase some spare parts for its aging fleet, there remains no way for Iranian airliners to purchase sorely needed new aircraft.

Every US administration for 35 years has increased the scope and strength of sanctions levied on Iran. The purported rationale has been to punish the Iranian government for its financing of terrorism and acceleration of its nuclear program. Nonetheless, evidence suggests that groups like the Revolutionary Guard and other kleptocracies have only come to control larger swaths of Iran’s economy as the sanctions starve Iran’s private sector businesses. (Sanctions on airplane parts far precede recent sanctions that the US claims brought Iran to the negotiation table.)

Such unintended consequences of the sanctions program harm the Iranian people in numerous ways. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has acknowledged that sanctions are having a detrimental effect on health of average Iranian, noting, “It is difficult, if not impossible, for importers to pay for medical supplies and equipment.” Last year, there were shortages for around 100 vital medicines in Iran each month.

Similarly, food prices in Iran have increased dramatically, leaving the country’s food system in a crisis as the cost of milk quadrupled, the cost of bread doubled, and the cost of rice increased from just 3 cents per kilogram to nearly $2.40 between 2007 and 2013.

It is the architecture of the sanctions that leaves the Iranian people so vulnerable to shortages, inflation, and price rises in everything from food to medicine to aircraft parts. Iran’s banking infrastructure was blacklisted by United States Treasury in 2012. Iran’s Central Bank-CBI (The equivalent of the US Federal Reserve) was sanctioned as were the six largest financial institutions. These banks were critical to facilitating trade on behalf of Iranian merchants looking to import food and medicine. U.S. regulators have imposed heavy fines on European banks conducting business with Iran. This has had a chilling effect of having those very same institutions shying away from opening letters of credit from Iranian customers.

As a result merchants have had to turn to smaller, private banks in Iran with limited pools of capital and restricted access to Iran’s foreign exchange reserves. These smaller banks have to request special allocations from the CBI so as to access Iran’s hard currency held in overseas accounts of countries that purchase Iranian crude oil.

Iran’s revenue comes mostly in its sale of oil and gas to Asia (Europe and the United States have sanctioned itself from buying Iranian crude). Proceeds of these sales are held in accounts of the CBI in denominations of the country buying the crude. For instance Chinese purchases of Iranian crude are held in renminbi in Chinese Banks. When Iran approaches these countries about accessing its own funds to buy goods such as penicillin, insulin, or essential commodities the banks of those countries sense an opportunity to reap huge profits from Iran by forcing Iran to use its own money to buy goods from their own domestic companies at huge premiums. These “commissions” a sometimes rate as high as 10% of the total contract amount, and the extortionate premiums are passed on in the inflationary cycle and price increases endured by the Iranian consumer. Moreover, in the case China and India food and medicine are often inferior to those that are produced in the West.

Today, as the U.S. remains close to a historic nuclear deal with Iran, members of the United States Congress, untrusting that diplomacy will work, are pressing the Obama administration to impose even more sanctions. This leaves Iranians concerned not so much about their own government, which has shown early signs of reform and commitment to dialogue with the West. Instead, they fear and resent lawmakers in Washington, who continue to pursue devastating sanctions with a fundamentalist zeal.

Mujica Criticizes (Embodies) Double-Standards

In a weekend interview with Spain's El Mundo, Uruguayan President Jose Mujica was asked about the deteriorating situation in Venezuela.

He defensively responded:

"There is no right to intervene in Venezuela's issues. People always ask me: What do you think of Venezuela and Cuba? But why don't they ask me about China? They don't because it is a major economic power. There is a tremendous tolerance with China, but not with Venezuela and Cuba. Why not ask me about those men from Arabia in robes and jewels? God forbid if that can be called a democracy..."

It's ironic how President Mujica feels that criticism of Venezuela's authoritarian government -- and support for its peaceful opponents -- is "intervening" in Venezuela's issues.

Yet, when Mujica led a violent, armed opposition ("Tupamaros") against Uruguay's dictatorship in the 1970s, he had no problem asking the world for sanctions -- or for Cuba's military dictatorship to "intervene" by providing weapons and training to his urban guerrillas.

Thus, Mujica shouldn't be pontificating on double standards.

However, Mujica is right about the world's immoral tolerance of China and Saudi Arabia's regimes.

History will surely not be kind to the West's China and energy policies, which have directly led to the creation of history's two most lucrative dictatorships.

But the answer is to correct the course -- and hold China and Saudi Arabia accountable for their unrelenting human rights violations and anti-democratic behavior.  Not to extend such short-sighted irreverence to the Western Hemisphere, namely Cuba and Venezuela.

(We've previously written about this in The New York Times. See "Freedom First or Business First?")

Mujica knows all-too-well that the Western Hemisphere has made great strides towards democracy in the last three decades. It's a far-cry from Asia and the Middle East.

Representative democracy was enshrined as the backbone of hemispheric relations in the 2001 Inter-American Democratic Charter ("Charter") signed by 34 (or 33.5, as Venezuela slides backwards) of the 35 countries of the Western Hemisphere.

Efforts to normalize U.S. and hemispheric relations with Cuba's totalitarian dictatorship, and to accept Venezuela's authoritarian affronts, seek to undermine these historic, democratic strides.

(We've also previously written about this in The Hill.  See "Latin America Has Democracy, But Lacks Democrats.")

This inter-hemispheric battle will play out during next year's Summit of the Americas in Panama, where Castro's cohorts will seek to undermine the Charter -- which stemmed from the 2001 Quebec Summit's "democracy clause" -- by including Cuba in this gathering of democracies.

That would represent the ultimate double-standard -- and re-open the doors to Latin American dictatorships (of the left and right).

Tweet of the Day: 59th Straight Sunday of Repression #Cuba

By Sayli Navarro of Cuba's Ladies in White:

#Cuba 59th Sunday of repression in Matanzas. Of the 25 Ladies in White that attended Mass, 23 of us were arrested after Mass. 

Concern Over the Fate of Two Cuban Political Prisoners

Sunday, August 24, 2014
International human rights groups and democratic governments should raise awareness regarding the concerning fate of two current Cuban political prisoners.

The first is renowned author Angel Santiesteban-Prats, who remains missing since July 21, 2014.

On that date, he'd denounced from the Lawton prison in Havana that there were strong rumors he would be transferred to a higher security prison.  He has not been heard from since.

An outspoken critic of the Castro regime in his blog, “Los hijos que nadie quiso” ("The children no one wanted"), Santiesteban-Prats was handed a five-year jail sentence after being convicted on trumped-up charges in a summary trial in December 2012.

He is on the Reporters Without Borders list of “information heroes.”

The second is imprisoned rapper, Angel Yunier Remon, who has been denied any visits in nearly one year.

He recently spent his 31st birthday as a Cuban political prisoner.

Yunier Remon, whose stage name is "el Critico del Arte" ("The Art Critic"), was attacked with tear gas and arrested on March 21st, 2013, for his criticism of the Castro regime.

In prison -- where he is being held without charges or trial -- Yunier has been continuously beaten, contracted various diseases, denied family visits and held naked in a punishment cell.

He has undertaken several hunger strikes to protest his cruel and arbitrary imprisonment.

Where Unlicensed Fishermen Are "Internal Enemies" (and Seafood is for Tourists)

From 14ymedio (courtesy of Translating Cuba):

Authorities Seize a Shipment of Seafood Hidden in an Ambulance

Cuban authorities recently seized a shipment of 270 pounds of shrimp and 110 pounds of lobster being transported hidden in an ambulance, the official newspaper Granma reported in its edition of Tuesday 19 August.

The official organ of the Communist Party refers to unlicensed fishermen as “internal enemies against whom we must intensify the struggle.” The author of the text, Ortelio González Martínez, analyzes the situation of illegal fishing in the province of Ciego de Avila where, he says, “There are still black holes into which seafood escapes.”

The journalist said that so far 18 contracts have been cancelled “for repeated breaches of catch plans, boats out of commission for a long period of time, and sales out of the province,” and he emphasizes the growing danger posed by the illegal seafood sales networks.

Despite being unavailable in the official markets, seafood is widely available in the informal trade networks on the Island. Harvesting shellfish is illegal for most fisherman—with or without a license—and is the exclusive domain of State or private cooperatives. The State has sole responsibility for managing seafood, which can be destined for export, or consumed at tourist resorts on the Island.