How a Canadian Businessman Lost Everything in Cuba

Saturday, March 21, 2015
Note to American businessmen -- here's what normalization with Castro's regime looks like.

Also, this wasn't five decades ago, or even one decade ago -- this was in the last few years alone.

Finally, there are at least a dozen other foreign businessmen currently -- and arbitrarily -- imprisoned in Cuba.

From The Globe and Mail:

How a Canadian businessman lost everything in Cuba

Canadian businessman Sarkis Yacoubian only knew his Cuban interrogator – the Cubans call them “instructors” – as Major Carlito. When they first met in the dim basement of the Havana house where security agents had initially imprisoned Mr. Yacoubian in July, 2011, he says Major Carlito greeted him by grabbing his own crotch.

“If you are expecting that the Canadian embassy is going to come to your help, this is what they are going to get,” Mr. Yacoubian, 54, says his captor warned him. Then, he says, Major Carlito accused him of being a spy, an accusation that would eventually be abandoned before the Canadian was convicted by a Cuban court of corruption charges and expelled last year.

His story, and that of Toronto-area businessman Cy Tokmakjian, who was released from incarceration in Cuba last month after a similar corruption trial, are cautionary tales for would-be investors in Cuba.

However, some say the historic Dec. 17 announcement of Canada-brokered talks to normalize Cuba’s relations with the United States – plus recent moves by leader Raul Castro to liberalize the economy – still has Canadian investors and entrepreneurs interested in the Communist-ruled island.

Despite Major Carlito’s threat, the Canadian embassy did closely monitor’s Mr. Yacoubian’s status as he spent two years in jail before facing any formal charge. And the ambassador attended Mr. Yacoubian’s 2013 trial, which saw him sentenced to nine years in prison and fined $7-million for corruption, tax evasion and doing “economic damage” to Cuba.

Mr. Tokmakjian, 74, spent more than three years in prison. Two of his Canadian employees who had been blocked from leaving Cuba were also recently freed. His Concord, Ont.-based Tokmakjian Group reportedly had a $90-million-a-year business on the island importing vehicles and construction equipment. His assets in Cuba were seized. Mr. Yacoubian, a former employee of Mr. Tokmakjian’s who broke away from his boss to build what he said was a $20-million-a-year business in Cuba bringing in similar products, says all of his assets on the island were also seized.

Both were caught up in what has been described as an anti-corruption sweep. Some of their Cuban employees as well as Cuban state officials were jailed. Several Cuban officials associated with a joint venture with Toronto-based miner Sherritt International Corp., Canada’s largest investor in Cuba, were also convicted of corruption offences in 2012. And a handful of other foreign businessmen in Cuba, including Briton Stephen Purvis – who told reporters his captors also initially accused him of espionage – and Frenchman Jean-Louis Autret were also imprisoned. Both have since been freed.

Mr. Yacoubian’s account of his ordeal sounds plucked from a spy novel. But even though months before his arrest he did buy a 2011 Aston Martin – James Bond’s car of choice – he says he was no spy.

He also says he was not corrupt and was only following common business practices in Cuba. He said he was forced to hand over 1 or 2 per cent on many transactions for what he called “protection money” for Cuban officials for routine things, such as permission to operate a mechanics’ shop or to obtain payment for goods sold. But he insists he never paid kickbacks to obtain contracts as the Cubans alleged. He questions why he was targeted.

“If there’s a traffic light that’s red, everybody passes. Now that I am passing you say, hold on a second, you can’t do that,” he said.

Before Mr. Yacoubian was arrested at gunpoint at his Havana offices in July, 2011, he had been running his own business in Cuba for 15 years after breaking away from Mr. Tokmakjian and founding his own company, Tri-Star Caribbean Inc., in the mid-1990s.

During his two and a half years in some of Cuba’s most notorious prisons, Mr. Yacoubian says he sank into a depression, attempted a hunger strike and threatened suicide. He says he was arbitrarily moved from cell to cell, which he described as “psychological torture.” But early on he says he was treated much better, held in a house in Havana, even playing dominoes with his captors. He was also allowed out to visit his elderly mother, who had flown into Havana, and from whom his imprisonment was kept secret.

He says he told his captors about the practices of other companies and of Cuban officials who received payments, and says he was made to testify against Cuban officials at what he said were closed sessions with military prosecutors.

Toronto-area Conservative MP Peter Kent, who represents the Thornhill, Ont., riding where Mr. Tokmakjian and his family live, visited both men while they were held at La Condesa, a prison an hour outside of Havana. He says their cases and those of the other foreign businessmen is chilling investment in Cuba.

“They have lost a lot of significant investment because, I believe, of the treatment of guys like Cy and [British national] Purvis and others,” Mr. Kent said, adding that businessmen from close U.S. allies but not from Venezuela, China or Russia had been targeted. “There, but for the whim of somebody in the Interior Ministry, they would either find themselves in jail one day or their assets seized.… It doesn’t matter how well you’ve behaved, you’re vulnerable.”

In Mr. Tokmakjian’s case, the Cubans alleged that he paid for vacations in Varadero, a barbecue and a flat-screen TV for Cuban officials, as well as for casino chips for a Cuban delegation on a visit to Niagara Falls, Ont. But Mr. Kent called these “confected charges” and said the Cubans refused to allow various expert witnesses to testify in Mr. Tokmakjian’s defence, before sentencing him to 15 years in jail in what his company called a “show trial.” Mr. Tokmakjian has denied all of the allegations against him. Through a lawyer, he declined to be interviewed for this story.

Cuba, by comparison with many of its Latin American neighbours, appears to have less large-scale bribery involving high-ranking officials, says Alexandra Wrage, who runs a non-profit called Trace International and advises multinationals on anti-corruption. But lower-level officials, she says, are often engaged in more widespread run-of-the-mill corruption demanding small payments or perks from foreigners.

“The consequences for corporations are kind of terrifying,” Ms. Wrage said. “You have a whole population that has basically been trained into the idea that they need to circumvent the rules to survive.”

Still, those risks – and the stories of Mr. Yacoubian and Mr. Tokmakjian – don’t appear to be dramatically dampening enthusiasm for investment in Cuba from Canada. In one sign of the demand, national law firm Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP will announce this week the launch of a new Cuba practice to help guide foreign investors there.

Gowlings is working with Gregory Biniowksy, a Canadian lawyer who has lived in Cuba for more than 20 years, who says he has seen a significant boost in interest from Canadian investors since December, with none overconcerned about being thrown in jail: “My experience with Canadian, European and even American investors that are looking at Cuba is that it doesn’t seem to be playing much of a factor in their calculations.”

Mark Entwistle, a former Canadian ambassador to Cuba who now works as a consultant for investors in the country with Toronto-based Acasta Capital, says it is quite possible to do business in Cuba without paying bribes. He said he could not comment on the specifics of the two cases but said he did not think they were scaring business away: “I don’t think there has been any great impact of these specific cases and the media attention they have generated on people interested in exploring the Cuba opportunity.”

When asked, even Mr. Yacoubian himself declines to outright warn Canadian businesspeople to avoid Cuba: “The businessmen are smart. There is a risk-reward factor. I am not going to comment. If they want to try it, they can try it. It worked for me for 20 years. And then I lost everything.”

Maduro-Ally Gives $1 Million to Clinton Foundation Related to Cuba Policy

From The Wall Street Journal:

Clinton Charity Tapped Foreign Friends

Foundation agreed not to seek donations from other governments, but cash kept flowing from individuals with connections to them

The Clinton Foundation swore off donations from foreign governments when Hillary Clinton was secretary of state. That didn’t stop the foundation from raising millions of dollars from foreigners with connections to their home governments, a review of foundation disclosures shows.

Some donors have direct ties to foreign governments. One is a member of the Saudi royal family. Another is a Ukrainian oligarch and former parliamentarian. Others are individuals with close connections to foreign governments that stem from their business activities. Their professed policy interests range from human rights to U.S.-Cuba relations.

Venezuelan media mogul Gustavo Cisneros, who is active in Venezuelan politics and has long advocated restoring ties between the U.S. and Cuba, has given the foundation between $500,000 and $1 million, some during Mrs. Clinton’s stint at the State Department. He owns Venevisión, one of Venezuela’s largest television networks, once a staunch opponent of former President Hugo Chávez. Since Mr. Chávez’s death in 2013, Mr. Cisneros has maintained ties to the new president, Nicolás Maduro. A spokesman for Mr. Cisneros didn't respond to a request for comment.

Activists Denounce Political Violence Against Women in Cuba

From El Nuevo Herald:

Activists denounce violence against opposition women in Cuba

Political violence against opposition women and civil society activists in Cuba was denounced by several Cuban representatives attending an international conference on the status of women in Latin America and the Caribbean, which takes place this Thursday at Florida International University.

“Being a woman in Cuba is more than a gender. It is also a political classification of the dictatorship,” said the leader of the Ladies in White movement, Berta Soler, who defined the Cuban government as “a racist, sexist, and discriminatory dictatorship.”

Soler said that in Cuba, “the freedom of women and blacks can only exist if they adjust to the premise of ‘within the Revolution everything, outside of the Revolution nothing,’” alluding to the speech known as Words to the Intellectuals, given by Fidel Castro in June 1961 which set the limits of political expression in the decades that followed.

Attorney Laritza Diversent, president of the Legal Information Center Cubalex, denounced what she considered “institutionalized violence” and “specific forms of discrimination” against women associated to the opposition, among them “threats of punishments against their sons” and “sexual elements in [police] searches.”

The attorney cited practices such as “making [women] undress to search their genitals” looking for recording devices and their jailing in cells that lack privacy, situations which she charged are “habitual” according to her experience providing legal assistance to some of these women.

 For Yoani Sánchez, known blogger and director of the digital journal 14ymedio,“being a woman has sometimes become an added difficulty to doing my job,” according to her comments to those present via teleconference from Georgetown University, where she is carrying out research on digital journalism. “We are in a continent with a very masculine policy based on confrontation, and in Cuba’s case, one of the worst examples in the region,” she added.

Sánchez denounced domestic violence as “an underlying drama that the official propaganda does not want to show.” She listed the problems Cuban women face, including being trapped in a double-shift work day, lacking the possibility of “organizing in an independent way to defend women claims.”

“Despite the government’s gloating about women’s participation [in society], women have little real power in Cuba; it is enough to see how many women drive a car, own a home or have a small business and we will see what remains for women to do,” she said.

“The most important challenge is to find political space for women, not only in terms of participation but also so that they can bring women’s concerns into politics. Being a woman  does not signify weakness,” she clarified, [what is needed is] “a policy of reconciliation,” an “inclusive” character, which according to her, should be a priority in Cuban politics.

“I hope that the policy will cease being defined by gender,” she added.

Yes, Venezuela (Cuba) is a Security Threat

Friday, March 20, 2015
By Carlos Alberto Montaner in The Miami Herald:

Yes, Venezuela is a security threat

President Obama signed an executive order last week declaring the regime in Venezuela a danger to U.S. security. Why? Because it violated the human rights of the democratic opposition. He followed up by imposing sanctions against several military officers and functionaries.

A strange move. He did it a few weeks after starting to cancel the sanctions against the Cuban dictatorship, which, for the past half a century or longer, has mistreated dissidents with the same or greater viciousness than that shown by the Nicolás Maduro government in Venezuela.

There is, besides, a matter of hierarchy. Cuba is the nanny. Venezuela behaves as it does at the behest of the Cuban advisers who rule the country. This is the expertise that Cuba sells to Venezuela: intelligence, social control and tough-fisted governability.

Naturally, Fidel and Raúl Castro immediately came out in impassioned defense of Maduro. The Castro brothers know perfectly well that the $13 billion a year in subsidies, aid and business furnished by their large political colony is worth more than the recent shows of affection and promises they got from the United States.

“Venezuela is not alone,” said the official Cuban note, meant to suggest that if it comes to a fight, the soldiers of the Cuban motherland will show up.

Of course, that’s just talk, gestures for the balcony. The Castros know that the United States is not the least interested in turning to violence to liquidate Venezuela’s “revolution.” Nobody is going to invade Venezuela.

What is generally ignored is why Obama has taken this contradictory step that only serves to give Maduro a pretext for nationalism, increase repression and stir the Latin American hornet’s nest.

And yet, there are good reasons behind the move. Venezuela is indeed a risk to the security of the United States, not because it violated the democrats’ human rights — that was the excuse — but because of three activities that are codified in the doctrinary definition that indicates where the danger to U.S. society begins or intensifies.

Whoever wants to know the vision that prevails in Washington on this issue should read the book Reconceptualizing Security in the Americas in the 21st Century, with special attention to the chapter titled Venezuela: Trends in Organized Crime, written by analyst Joseph M. Humire.

The movement started by the late Hugo Chávez and inherited by Maduro has crossed three red lines.

▪ First, Venezuelan complicity with the Islamist terrorists in Iran. The governor of the state of Aragua, Tareck El Aissami, of Arab origin, is a former Interior minister said to have strong connections to the Iran government. He has used his posts to create a network of Middle East terrorists fed by drug trafficking.

▪ The second boundary crossed by Caracas is, precisely, drug trafficking. There are Venezuelan generals who are up to their eyebrows in that murky trade. Out of the 700 tons of cocaine produced annually worldwide, 300 go through Venezuela to Europe via Africa or to the United States via Central America. Diosdado Cabello, the president of Parliament, has been accused of being the chief of the main cartel.

▪ Third is the widespread laundering of ill-gotten cash. Petróleos de Venezuela, the state-owned oil company known by the acronym PDVSA, is where most of the crooked transactions take place, including the emission of bonds. More than a business, PDVSA is Ali Baba’s cave but with a lot more than 40 thieves. That money serves to corrupt politicians, buy influence and pay criminals for their services.

The White House knows all this in detail.

It has learned it from diplomats, intelligence services and defectors. Walid Makled García, a Venezuelan drug-trafficking capo as big as the late Pablo Escobar in his prime, was interrogated intensely by DEA agents before his Colombian captors deported him to Venezuela.

“The Turk,” as he is called, sang La Traviata. He spilled everything. The latest member of the chorus is Leamsy Salazar, Cabello and Chávez’s right-hand man, who asked for asylum in the United States and confirmed all that. He also contributed new data. It could no longer be said that “Venezuela is not a danger but a nuisance.”

Actually, Venezuela is a danger to the security of the United States and the hemisphere. Obama’s mistake was not to confront his enemy and call things by their rightful name but to choose an oblique accusation and formulate it poorly, so that most people could not understand it. He wanted to satisfy everybody and managed to do exactly the opposite. A pity.

More on Hillary's Poor Judgment With Tyrants

Thursday, March 19, 2015
Last year, we wrote a post about Hillary Clinton's tenure at the State Department entitled, "For the Sake of the Victims of Tyranny, No More 'Resets'" -- a rundown of her poor judgment dealing with tyrants in Syria, Iran, Burma and Russia and Cuba.

Add China to the list.

Sadly, this is what awaits Cuba's dissidents under the Obama-Clinton normalization process.

From Politico:

Hillary Clinton and the case of Chen Guangcheng

In a new memoir, the blind dissident says Clinton’s State Department pressured him to take a bad deal with the Chinese government.

Hillary Clinton has described the State Department’s handling of the case of blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng as an important achievement during her time at Foggy Bottom — a reminder that “our defense of universal human rights is one of America’s greatest sources of strength.”

But Chen himself was not so impressed.

In his new memoir, the so-called “barefoot lawyer,” who managed against all odds to flee house arrest and seek refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing in 2012, writes about feeling extreme pressure from Clinton aides to quickly accept a deal with the Chinese — one that he feared would expose him and his family to more abuse. He suggests that at times he felt as if U.S. diplomats had misled him, and he undercuts Clinton’s assertion in her recent memoir that U.S. officials “had done what Chen said he wanted every step of the way.”

The negotiations over what to do with Chen were happening at a sensitive time — Clinton and other U.S. officials were in Beijing for the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, a major pillar of the Obama administration’s engagement strategy. Although Chen avoids directly criticizing Clinton, he writes that he felt as if her staffers were willing to bend way too far to accommodate Chinese demands.

In one passage, Chen alleges that at an April 27, 2012, meeting of the National Security Council with President Barack Obama, it was decided that his case must not hurt U.S.-China relations, and that he should be prevented from having Internet access — steps “I took to indicate that the White House no longer supported me and that I was to leave the embassy in short order.” The NSC press office declined comment Thursday.

Chen, a largely self-taught activist who challenged the Chinese government on forced abortions and other issues, had been imprisoned for several years on trumped-up charges before being placed under a lengthy and unofficial house arrest, where he was constantly harassed and abused by local officials. Above all, Chen wanted China’s top leaders to investigate his ordeal, punish those responsible for his poor treatment, and ensure that he and his relatives would be safe and free. He writes that he repeated these demands to U.S. officials over and over, but they kept pressing him to accept the deal with the Chinese, saying he might face charges of treason if he didn’t move quickly.

At a certain point, he wrote, “I no longer felt that they were on my side.”

Chen is careful not to sound ungrateful toward the U.S. officials he mentions, but he questions whether they were naive. “I wondered if the Americans fully understood the power Chinese officials have over ordinary citizens,” he wrote. At one point during his often tear-filled experience, he remembers thinking: “When negotiating with a government run by hooligans, the country that most consistently advocated for democracy, freedom and universal human values had simply given in.”

Squaring Cuba's Terror Designation in the Circle of the Law

Wednesday, March 18, 2015
By Mauricio Claver-Carone in World Affairs Journal:

Squaring Cuba's Terror Designation in the Circle of the Law

Cuba’s Castro regime has made it clear in recent weeks that “normalizing” relations with the United States hinges on removing the designation of that island nation from the US list of “state-sponsors of terrorism.” Iran, Sudan, and Syria are the only other nations currently on the list, which is compiled by the State Department.

Last December, as President Obama announced his intent to re-establish formal diplomatic relations with Cuba, he also publicly instructed Secretary of State John Kerry to review Cuba’s status. The review, the president added, should be “guided by the facts and the law.” In the weeks since, there have been reports of the White House pressuring the State Department and intelligence community to accelerate the review so that the president and his Cuban counterpart, Raúl Castro, Fidel’s brother, can shake hands at the April “Summit of the Americas,” in Panama City, Panama.

That provokes serious concerns about whether the review is, indeed, being “guided by the facts and the law” or has become the veneer covering additional concessions that the Obama administration agreed to during 18 month of secret negotiations with the Castro regime. We don’t know what those were. We do know that before taking Cuba off the list of state sponsors of terrorism, statutory criteria must be satisfied and that actions by the Castro regime make it unlikely they can be met.

Under Section 6(j) of the Export Administration Act (as currently re-authorized under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act of 1977), the president must submit a report to Congress, 45 days before terminating the designation, that certifies the Cuban government has not provided any support for international terrorism during the preceding six months and has made assurances to the United States that it will not support terrorist acts in the future.

To be based on “the law and the facts,” the following five facts about Castro’s regime must be reconciled with the law:

Cuba is providing sanctuary to US-designated “Foreign Terrorist Organizations.” It’s indisputable that Cuba currently provides sanctuary to terrorists from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the National Liberation Army of Colombia (ELN), and Spain’s Basque separatist group, ETA. If the Obama administration no longer believes FARC, ELN, and ETA are terrorist organizations, which would be mind-boggling, then the State Department must first review their designation as “Foreign Terrorist Organizations.” De-listing Cuba as a state-sponsor of terrorism while countenancing its harboring and abetting of terrorist organizations is disingenuous, a folly akin to placing the cart before the horse.

Cuba is harboring one of the FBI’s “Ten Most Wanted Terrorists.” Joanne Chesimard remains among the top ten on the FBI’s list of “Most Wanted Terrorists” for the execution-style murder of a New Jersey state trooper. Chesimard, who the Castro regime has reiterated will not be returned to face justice, is the only “Top Ten” terrorist to be openly living in a state-sponsor nation. Again, if the Obama administration no longer believes that Chesimard is a terrorist—also mind-boggling—it should first remove her from the FBI list.

Three senior Cuban military officers remain under a US murder indictment. In 2003, a US federal court indicted then-head of the Cuban Air Force, General Rubén Martínez Puente, and two MiG pilots, Lorenzo Alberto Pérez-Pérez and Francisco Pérez-Pérez, for the 1996 shoot-down of two civilian planes—killing four men—over international waters. Three were American citizens, and one a permanent resident. No similar indictment has been issued against any military officials of other nations deemed to be sponsors of terrorism. Emphasizing this challenge, last month Obama extended a national emergency declaration finding that “the Cuban government has not demonstrated that it will refrain from the use of excessive force against US vessels or aircraft that may engage in memorial activities or peaceful protest north of Cuba.”

Cuba provides material support to subversive and criminal elements in the region. Cuba was originally placed on the terrorism list in 1982 for its training and arming of subversive forces in Africa and the Americas. Today, thousands of Cuban soldiers and intelligence officials are stationed in Venezuela. Their presence and control of Venezuela’s military, police, and intelligence services is subverting democracy in that nation. Cuba has armed and trained violent paramilitary groups, known as colectivos, and remains involved in narcotics trafficking and other criminal activities. Last week’s executive order by Obama declaring Venezuela as a national security threat and sanctioning seven senior government officials—with well-known links to Cuba’s military and security services—for their nefarious activities underscores this menace.

Cuba has recently lied twice to the international community about smuggling weapons. In a report last year, United Nations officials confirmed Cuba’s attempt to smuggle 240 tons of heavy weaponry to North Korea, hidden under tons of sugar. Panamanian officials discovered the contraband, which the UN panel described as the largest and most egregious violation of international sanctions to date. The panel documented the Castro regime’s lack of cooperation, false statements, and strategy to conceal and deceive UN authorities. And just this month, a Chinese-flagged ship was intercepted in Colombia carrying an illegal cache of weapons destined for Cuba’s military. Thus, what credible “assurances” can the Castro regime give the United States—as required by law—that it will now refrain from rogue activities?

The Obama-Castro deal has been subject to a great deal of criticism for lifting trade and travel restrictions without extracting any political or economic reforms from Cuba’s dictatorship. American aid worker Alan Gross was allowed to return home, but Castro had seized him as a hostage to coerce US concessions. To sidestep clear legal impediments to remove Cuba from the US list of states sponsoring terrorism, however, goes beyond political embarrassment. It would be an irreparable blow to the credibility of the administration’s foreign-policy leadership.

Mauricio Claver-Carone is a director of the US-Cuba Democracy PAC and host of the foreign-policy show From Washington al Mundo on Sirius XM’s Channel 153. He is an attorney who formerly served with the US Department of the Treasury and has served on the full-time faculty of the Catholic University of America’s School of Law and adjunct faculty of the George Washington University’s National Law Center.

Cuban Military is the Big Winner of Obama's Deal

In Politico, former diplomat and author James Bruno has an interesting piece entitled, "How Obama’s Cuba Deal Is Strengthening Its Military."

Its subheading reads, "Castro’s real heirs are the generals, and they’re going to make a bundle from normalization."

Bruno's thesis is two-fold:

First, that the Cuban military (or Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias, "FAR") is the big winner of the Obama-Castro deal. And second, that it may (cautiously) not be a bad thing.

He's absolutely right about the first. But his second conclusion is misguided.

Despite all of the Obama Administration's rhetoric regarding "support for the Cuban people" and "cuentapropistas" -- the undisputed winner of his December 17th deal with General Raul Castro is the Cuban military.

As Bruno explains:

"Americans flocking to Cuba in years ahead will likely be shoring up the Cuban military’s bottom line. Today, senior FAR officers are in charge of sugar production, tourism, import-export, information technology and communications, civil aviation and cigar production. It is estimated that at least 60 percent of Cuba’s economy and 40 percent of foreign exchange revenues are in the hands of the military and that 20 percent of workers are employed by the FAR’s holding company, GAESA. Tourists sipping a mojito at Varadero beach, flying by commuter to lush resorts in the Cuban keys, visiting historic attractions, enjoying the cuisine at a five-star hotel or lighting up a Cohiba after one of those meals are unconsciously contributing to the coffers of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias and the communist government to the tune of several billion dollars a year. Some of this hard-currency infusion has fed corruption within the FAR. Nonetheless, when the U.S. embargo is eventually lifted, American companies interested in investing in Cuba will need to partner with enterprises under the control of the Cuban military. It follows, therefore, that the U.S. government will need to broadly engage with the FAR on economic and trade as well as political and military matters."

Ditto.

But Bruno then stumbles trying to temper views on the Cuban military -- most notably regarding its role in the repression of the Cuban people:

"The powerful Ministry of Interior is widely feared as the blunt instrument of oppression, but it too is likely to be swept aside eventually by the tide of change. And more than a half-century of authoritarian single-party rule has stunted civil society and held the Catholic Church in check. This leaves the FAR. Under Raúl Castro’s leadership from 1959 until he succeeded brother Fidel as president in 2006, the now 60,000-strong military has been widely considered to be Cuba’s best managed and stablest official entity. Furthermore, it has never been called upon to fire on or suppress Cuban citizens, even during the so-called Maleconazo protests in 1994, and most observers believe the FAR would refuse any orders to do so."

Bruno fails to note one fundamental fact -- Cuba's feared Ministry of the Interior is run by the FAR.

In the late 1980s (pursuant to a post-"Ochoa affair" purging), the FAR under General Raul Castro not only consolidated its control over all business on the island -- but also the security services and intelligence apparatus.

Since then, the Ministry of the Interior has been headed by a FAR General -- General Abelardo Colome Ibarra, a close confidant of Castro.

The Vice-Minister of the Interior is also a FAR General -- General Carlos Fernandez Gondin, who is also known as Castro's point-man in control of Venezuela's security services.

Meanwhile, the most symbolic figure in the Ministry of the Interior is also a FAR official -- Colonel Alejandro Castro, Raul's son.

Let's also not forget that Raul Castro -- Cuba's current dictator-in-chief -- is himself a FAR General and that his ruling junta is composed overwhelmingly of FAR Generals.

Thus, Cuba's military is not only involved in the day-to-day repression of the Cuban people -- it directs it and is ultimately responsible for it.

Finally, Bruno fails to note the central role of the Cuban military in the international smuggling of heavy weapons (having gotten caught twice red-handed in the last twenty months), and the outstanding indictments against senior FAR officials in the United States for crimes including narcotics-trafficking and the murder of Americans.

In other words, the further enrichment and empowerment of the Cuban military pursuant to the Obama-Castro deal increases the risk of a post-Castro, Putin-style criminal state.

Hardly an appealing scenario.

Image below: FAR General (and Minister of the Interior) Abelardo Colome Ibarra and FAR General (and Minister of Information Technology and Communications) Ramiro Valdes welcome back one of the Cuban spies released by Obama.

Rubio: U.S. Cannot Turn a Blind-Eye to Cuba's Role in Venezuela

Tuesday, March 17, 2015
During a hearing today in the Senator Foreign Relations Committee, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) pressed Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere Alex Lee on Cuba's control over Venezuela's military and security services.

As you'll note from the exchange, the State Department wants to turn a blind-eye to Cuba's subversive activities in Venezuela. After all, that would be yet another legal impediment for Cuba's removal from the state-sponsors of terrorism list -- see the rationale here.

Click here to watch the Cuba exchange in today's hearing.

Raul Castro's Message From Caracas

The position of our country is invariable. I reiterate the strong solidarity of the Cuban revolution with the Bolivarian revolution, with President Nicolas Maduro and the civil-military union that it leads. I reiterate the absolute loyalty to the memory of Hugo Chavez, the best friend of the Cuban revolution... The United States should understand once and for all that it is impossible to seduce Cuba and intimidate Venezuela, since our unity is indestructible... We will not tolerate any interference or conditioning of internal affairs. We will not relent in the just causes of South America, nor leave alone our brothers fighting in Venezuela... Our principles are not negotiable.
-- General Raul Castro, Cuban dictator, remarks at the ALBA special summit in Caracas, 3/17/15


Cuba Rubs North Korean Weapons Smuggling in U.S.'s Face

A third round of talks between the United States and Cuba on the normalization of relations has just ended in Havana.

This latest round was conducted in great secrecy.

Such secrecy leads us to believe that one of the "tasks" of this trip may have been for Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere Roberta Jacobson to obtain "assurances" from the Castro regime that it will no longer support terrorist groups in the future, which is one of the legal requirements necessary for the U.S. to remove Cuba from the terrorist list.

After all, the Castro regime has made it clear that being removed from the state-sponsors of terrorism list is a main pre-condition for establishing diplomatic relations.

And the Obama Administration appears willing to abide.

The enormous (tragic) irony here would be that simultaneously, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Su Young is in Havana celebrating "excellent relations" with Castro's regime, which includes the illegal smuggling of heavy weapons.

Last year, Cuba was found to be in violation of international sanctions for attempting to smuggle over 240 of weapons to North Korea hidden as a "sugar" shipment.

Cuba's regime got-away unscathed for this illegal act.  To the contrary, it's now being rewarded by the United States.

This month, Cuba was again found to be illegally smuggling weapons -- this time from China hidden as a "grain" shipment.

Thus, what credible "assurances" can a regime that has been caught twice in the last 20 months illegally smuggling weapons provide the United States?

In light of the timing this affront by Cuba's regime, it's important to remember the magnitude of this illegal smuggling incident.

Thus, here are some notable excerpts from the U.N Panel of Expert's report:

- The Panel concluded in its incident report submitted to the Committee that both the shipment itself and the transaction between Cuba and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea were sanctions violations.

- The Panel found that the hidden cargo amounted to six trailers associated with surface-to-air missile systems and 25 shipping containers loaded with two disassembled MiG-21 aircraft, 15 engines for MiG-21 aircraft, components for surface-to-air missile systems, ammunition and miscellaneous arms-related materiel.This constituted the largest amount of arms and related materiel interdicted to or from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea since the adoption of resolution 1718 (2006).

- On 20 June, the ship docked in the port of Mariel, where it took onboard the arms and related materiel.

- Cuba argued that “maintenance”, as set out in paragraph 8 (c) of resolution 1718, was distinct from “repair”, which Cuba claimed was the basis of its contract with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea... The Panel is unconvinced by Cuba’s rationale to distinguish “maintenance” and “repair.”

- The transportation of undeclared weapons and explosives in this manner posed a significant danger to all persons and facilities in proximity to the ship and should be a cause of concern among shippers, port authorities, the international maritime community and insurers.

- Evidence found on the ship (see annexes XX and XXI) pointed to involvement of Democratic People’s Republic of Korea embassy staff in Cuba. Contact phone numbers and records found in the captain’s notes led the Panel to conclude that embassy officials in Havana were engaged in making arrangements for the shipment of the consignment of arms and related materiel, including the payment methods.

- The incident involving the Chong Chon Gang revealed a comprehensive, planned strategy to conceal the existence and nature of the cargo.

- All identification markings and insignia of the Cuban Revolutionary Air Force had been removed from both MiG-21 aircraft; the Panel observed signs of overspray and scratch marks in places dedicated to original insignia.

- [The Panel] notes that the voyage of another Democratic People’s Republic of Korea-flagged and -owned vessel to Cuba presents a very similar pattern to the recent voyage of the Chong Chon Gang.


- On April 2012, the general cargo vessel O Un Chong Nyon Ho (IMO 8330815) operated by OMM,11 sailed directly from Nampo to Cuba and back without any further calls in the region. After having stopped in Havana and Puerto Padre, the O Un Chong Nyon Ho drifted for several weeks off northern Cuba before returning for three weeks to Havana. Its Automatic Identification System was switched off (in violation of IMO requirements) during these three weeks, however, effectively preventing determination of further ports’ calls,as in the case of the Chong Chon Gang.

North Korea, Cuba in "Same Trench" Against U.S.

From AFP:

North Korea, Cuba in 'same trench' against US: minister

North Korea and Cuba share the same struggle against US aggression, Pyongyang's foreign minister said Monday as Washington and Havana held new talks on restoring diplomatic ties.

In a visit to Havana that coincided with the latest round of talks on normalizing US-Cuban relations, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Su-Yong played up the two communist regimes' history of enmity toward the United States.

North Korea and Cuba "share a history of fighting together in the same trench against American imperialism, which continues to exert economic pressure on our countries to this day," Ri was quoted as saying by Cuba's state-run news agency Prensa Latina.

Ri also "highlighted the excellent relations" between the two communist countries and gave his Cuban counterpart Bruno Rodriguez "a message from leader Kim Jong-Un expressing his wish to broaden and strengthen (relations) even more," said the news agency.

Rodriguez reiterated Cuba's commitment to peacefully reuniting North and South Korea "without foreign interference," Prensa Latina said.

The visit came as US Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson met her Cuban counterpart Josefina Vidal, Havana's top diplomat for US affairs, for a third round of talks to advance a possible US-Cuban rapprochement announced on December 17.

Obama's Cuba Policy Motivation: Prevent Migration Crisis

At a press conference this week, General John Kelly, head of the U.S. Southern Command, revealed the motivating force behind the Obama Administration's Cuba policy -- to economically stabilize the regime with the "hope" of preventing a migration crisis.

In other words, stability over freedom and democracy.

From Jimmy Carter (Mariel), through Bill Clinton (1994 Rafters), to now Barack Obama, the threat of a migration crisis has been the Castro regime's coercive "weapon" of choice against U.S. Presidents.

Yet, ironically, since President Obama unconditionally embraced Castro's regime, the number Cubans fleeing has seen a sharp rise of over 100% -- both through the Florida Straits and the Mexican border.

This short-sighted policy motivation fails to understand what the greatest deterrent against Cubans fleeing their homeland would be -- freedom.

Here are General Kelly's remarks:

"The real shame of [the situation in Venezuela] is, of course, they have the second-largest oil reserves in the world. If it -- if it continues to degrade, I'm -- here's where I am concerned. There are many, many countries in Latin America that take virtually free fuel, Petrocaribe, that Chavez and now Maduro provides, Venezuela, Colombia, Jamaica -- not Colombia, Venezuela, Cuba, Haiti, places like that. These small, small countries rely on -- on the oil more or less free. Their economies would, I think, collapse if they didn't get the oil.

So if we see a continued degradation -- you know, right now, I think the inflation rate is 56 percent. That is impossible to sustain that in any economy. So if he starts to -- if they make a decision to stop the flow of relatively or all but free oil to these smaller economies, and those economies fail, then that -- that would have certainly a migration impact, and you know where they're coming, and -- and particularly Cuba. I mean, Cuba is very dependent on the Petrocaribe, as is Nicaragua, and if that was turned off, I think there would be some real repercussions economically. But, again, I'm -- I'm a military guy and -- just a simple military guy trying to do a job. I don't understand the economy -- economic thing very well."

Cuba Treating Obama Administration Like Pushovers

Monday, March 16, 2015
Yesterday, a State Department delegation, led by Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere Roberta Jacobson, arrived in Havana for a third round of normalization talks.

This is the second time that Cuba's regime hosts the talks.

During the first round of talks in January, the Castro regime welcomed a Russian spy ship, The Viktor Leonov, to dock in the Port of Havana throughout the exact duration of Jacobson's stay.

So how did Cuba's regime welcome Jacobson this time?

First, it simultaneously hosted a visit by North Korean Foreign Minister, Ri Su Yong. Ri, a close confidant of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, arrived in Havana directly from a visit with Putin's regime in Moscow. Last year, a U.N. Panel of Experts found Cuba to be in violation of international sanctions -- the most egregious violation by any country to date -- for attempting to smuggle 240 tons of heavy weaponry to Pyongyang.

Then, it staged an anti-U.S., pro-Nicolas Maduro protest.  The Castro regime has declared "unconditional support" for its puppet regime in Caracas, led by Nicolas Maduro, in the face of U.S. sanctions against Venezuelan human rights violators.  Maduro's most recent authoritarian measures, including the arrest of the Mayor of Caracas and the death of a 14-year old student protester, were preceded by direct consultations in Havana with Fidel and Raul Castro.

Finally, it arrested over 100 Cuban dissidents. Over 100 members of the opposition group, the Cuban Patriotic Union (UNPCU), were intercepted and violently arrested on Sunday as they tried to attend Mass at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Charity. These arrests were in in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba alone. Other arrests took place throughout the island.

Some lessons are learned hard -- and others not at all.

As we had warned pursuant to President Obama's December 17th announcement:

"[T]hose who lobbied for Obama to attend the [April 2015] Summit of the American regardless of the violation of the 'democracy clause' weren't to be satisfied with his attendance alone. They also wanted the President to arrive with a gift bag for Cuba that includes a further lifting of U.S. sanctions. That, they argued, will ensure a warm reception for Obama from 'troubled' Latin American leaders. And naturally, Castro would be thrilled.

If this sounds familiar, it's because the exact same arguments were made in the months and weeks leading up to the 2009 Summit of the Americas in Trinidad. Just days before that summit, the Obama Administration did ease sanctions against Cuba. Despite this 'gesture,' Obama was not received in Trinidad as a hero. He was treated as a pushover."

That's exactly how the Castro regime currently perceives the Obama Administration -- as pushovers.

After all, it just successfully coerced the release of imprisoned Cuban spies -- including one serving a life-sentence for murder conspiracy -- and secured itself an economic lifeline by holding an American hostage for nearly five years.

And for his next Act -- Castro seeks to coerce the United States into removing Cuba from the "state-sponsors of terrorism" list.

In the last few weeks, the Castro regime has not been shy in its demands to be removed from the list -- whether completely or by having Obama announce his intent to do so -- prior to establishing diplomatic relations.

It even tried to smuggle "war materiels" (again this month) disguised as a grain shipment under the noses of the United States and the international community.

Why?

Because its coercive tactics have worked.

And regardless of your views on U.S.-Cuba policy -- that is never a good position for the U.S. to be placed in.

N.Y. Post: Cuomo in Cuba

From The New York Post's Editorial Board:

Cuomo in Cuba

When Gov. Cuomo heads to Cuba next month, there’s something he should demand from the Castro government: the return of fugitive terrorists.

Cuba today harbors some 70 American fugitives from justice, but we have three particular ones in mind. Because each committed heinous crimes in this area — and none has been held to account.

  •  Joanne Chesimard, aka Assata Shakur, a Black Liberation Army terrorist convicted of the 1973 execution-style murder of a New Jersey state trooper. In 1979, she fled to Cuba after escaping from prison.
  •  Guillermo Morales, chief bombmaker for the Puerto Rican terrorist group FALN, responsible for scores of deadly New York attacks — including the infamous 1975 bombing of Fraunces Tavern.
  •  Cheri Dalton, aka Nehanda Isoke Abiodun, wanted for a string of “revolutionary” armored-car robberies. She allegedly drove the getaway car in the 1981 Brinks robbery in Nyack, in which two police officers and a guard were murdered.
President Obama has ordered the State Department to review Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism.

But as Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) noted in recent letters to Secretary of State John Kerry and FBI Director James Comey, our law provides for such a designation when a country serves “as a sanctuary for terrorists or terrorist organizations.”

That fits Cuba.

We appreciate that Gov. Cuomo wants to be the first governor to cash in on Cuba’s trade dollars.

But if he really wants to serve New Yorkers, how about persuading Havana that those wanted for shedding blood here need to be sent home to face justice?


Obama's Counter-Productive Engagement Policy

Sunday, March 15, 2015
This perfectly encapsulates the counter-productive effects of President Obama's policy of engagement -- and the premature lifting of sanctions -- towards rogue regimes.

From The Washington Post's Editorial Board:

A failing engagement with Burma

President Obama has based his foreign policy on the notion that it is better to “engage” than confront hostile nations and that such diplomacy should encourage gradual reforms, rather than revolution or regime change. The results of such outreach to Cuba and Iran are not yet in, but his administration continues to tout Burma as an example of how his strategy can work. There, a once-isolated military regime freed political prisoners and allowed its opposition to participate in a parliamentary election while being showered with U.S. economic and political concessions, including two visits by Mr. Obama. As recently as last month, the State Department’s top official for Asia, Daniel Russel, said Burma could be a model for North Korea: “Change in North Korea does not need to be regime change, as the example of Burma shows,” he said.

Kim Jong Un might well take a lesson from Burma, but North Koreans ought to hope that he doesn’t. What its record currently shows is that a dictatorship can reap the economic and political benefits of detente with the United States while offering only token political concessions. More than two years after the administration lifted sanctions on Burma and began providing it with nearly half a billion dollars in aid, the military regime continues to persecute minorities, imprison journalists and repress peaceful dissent while defending a constitution that bans the country’s most important political leader, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, from becoming president.

During his last visit to the country, in November, Mr. Obama set five tests for measuring whether the transition from authoritarianism “has been fully realized.” The regime is failing all of them. It has not, as the president urged, moved to remove the constitutional ban on Ms. Suu Kyi. Instead of negotiating a cease-fire with ethnic rebel groups, it has escalated military operations against them. Mr. Obama urged fair treatment of religious minorities, but the regime is preparing new discriminatory laws. It is proceeding with a vicious campaign to deny rights, including voting rights, to the Muslim Rohingya minority.

Another of Mr. Obama’s tests was “basic issues of freedom and personal security,” such as the treatment of journalists and protesters. The result can be found in a Feb. 25 statement by the United Nations’ human rights high representative, Zeid Raad al-Hussein, who cited the jailing of 10 journalists and numerous peaceful protesters before concluding that the regime “seems intent on creating a new generation” of political prisoners. An ongoing crackdown on students only strengthens that judgment.

The generals are planning to stage an election this year, but it will not be the “fair, free, transparent election” Mr. Obama called for. Because the military is allocated 25 percent of the seats in parliament, the ruling party can retain power by winning only 34 percent of the elected seats. Ms. Suu Kyi is weighing whether to boycott the vote. If she does, the political process could collapse, but the alternative is legitimizing a facade of democracy over continued military rule.

Having rushed to lift sanctions as part of his engagement strategy, Mr. Obama now lacks leverage. The administration watches passively as the regime does the opposite of what the president called for. It’s a humiliating spectacle — and one that should give pause to those who believe that Mr. Obama’s variety of “engagement” will get results with other dictatorships.