Iran's Love Affair With Castro's Cuba

Saturday, March 28, 2015
By Dr. Jaime Suchlicki in Foreign Policy:

From Havana to Tehran

The strange love affair between a theocracy and an atheistic dictatorship.

On Dec. 17, 2014, President Barack Obama announced a dramatic change in the United States’ policy toward Cuba, heralding the end of a Cold War-era conflict that had begun to look increasingly anachronistic. The benefits of the two longtime foes’ new and improved relationship remain to be seen — but the contradictions involved are already obvious. Over half a century of pursuing an aggressive anti-American foreign policy, Cuba has made plenty of friends whom the United States considers enemies, and Havana is unlikely to easily let go of its longtime allies. These include Russia, Venezuela, and a variety of Arab dictators, Islamic fundamentalist movements, and anti-Israeli terrorist organizations. The list of Cuba’s unsavory friends also includes Iran — a relationship of particular salience on the world stage today.

Communist Cuba’s alliance with the Iran of the Ayatollahs dates to 1979, when Fidel Castro became one of the first heads of state to recognize the Islamic Republic’s radical clerics. Addressing then-Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini, Castro insisted that there was “no contradiction between revolution and religion,” an ecumenical principle that has guided Cuba’s relations with Iran and other Islamic regimes. Over the next two decades, Castro fostered a unique relationship between secular communist Cuba and theocratic Iran, united by a common hatred of the United States and the liberal, democratic West — and by substantial material interests. (In the photo, Iran’s Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi and Cuba’s Vice Foreign Minister Marcos Rodriguez attend a wreath-laying ceremony on Revolution Square in Havana on Sept. 7, 2011.)

In the early 1990s, Havana started to export biopharmaceutical products for the Iranian health care system and trained Iranian scientists to use them. By the end of the decade, it had moved beyond simple exports to transferring medical biotechnology and, along with the technical know-how, capabilities for developing and manufacturing industrial quantities of biological weapons. In addition to training Iranian scientists in Cuba and sending Cuban scientists and technicians to Iran’s research centers, the state-run Center for Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering established a joint-venture biotechnology production plant near Tehran at a cost of $60 million, with Cuba providing the intellectual capital and technology, and Iran providing the financing. This facility, now under Iranian control, is believed to be “the most modern biotechnology and genetic engineering facility of its type in the Middle East.”

Iran has also benefited from its friendship with Havana in more aggressive ways. Geographically, Cuba’s strategic location enabled the Islamic Republic, on at least one occasion, to clandestinely engage in electronic attacks against U.S. telecommunications that posed a threat to the Islamic regime’s censorship apparatus. In the summer of 2003, Tehran blocked signals from a U.S. satellite that was broadcasting uncensored Farsi-language news into the country at a time of rising unrest. Based on the satellite’s location over the Atlantic, it would have been impossible for Iranian-based transmissions to affect its signals. Ultimately, the jamming was traced to a compound in the outskirts of Havana that had been equipped with the advanced telecommunications technology capable of disrupting the Los Angeles-based broadcaster’s programming across the Atlantic. It is well known that Cuba has continuously upgraded its ability to block U.S. broadcasts to the island, and hence, conceivably, to jam international communications. Although the Cuban government would later claim that Iranian diplomatic staff had operated out of the compound without its consent, given that Cuba “[is] a fully police state,” as Iran expert Safa Haeri has noted, “it is difficult to believe the Iranians had introduced the sophisticated jamming equipment into Cuba without the knowledge of the Cuban authorities,” much less utilized it against U.S. targets without the knowledge of the Castro regime.

In return for its services, Iran has compensated the Cuban government directly. During the presidency of Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), Tehran offered Havana an initial 20 million euro annual credit line. Following the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005, Iran expanded this credit line to 200 million euros for bilateral trade and investment projects. At the same time, Havana was spearheading a campaign within the Non-Aligned Movement to legitimize Iran’s “peaceful” nuclear program as an “inalienable right” of all developing nations. In June 2008 Ahmadinejad approved a record 500 million euro credit for the Castro regime. From Iran’s perspective, Cuba deserves to be rewarded for its “similarity in outlooks on international issues.”

In total, Cuba has received the equivalent of over one billion euros in loans from Tehran since 2005. With this financing, Cuba has begun to make critical investments in the rehabilitation of dilapidated Soviet-era infrastructure. Iran is funding some 60 projects ranging from the acquisition of 750 Iranian-made rail cars to the construction of power plants, dams, and highways. This infusion of Islamic capital has strengthened the Cuban regime’s stability and reduced the risk of economic collapse by adding a fourth financial pillar alongside oil from Venezuela, bilateral trade credits from China and Russia, and corporate capital from Canada, Latin America and the European Union.

The election of the apparently more moderate Hassan Rouhani, the reduction in the price of oil, and Iran’s involvement in the Middle East have precluded additional credits to Cuba. Yet the relationship, as evidenced by visits, cooperation in international organizations, and joint support for Venezuela, has continued.

Tehran’s and Havana’s shared interest in Venezuela is another source of potential concern to the West. Venezuela’s strategic position and considerable resources make it a potentially greater threat to U.S. interests in the region than the one posed in the 1960s by the Castro regime. Venezuela’s alliances with Iran, Syria, and other anti-American countries and its support for terrorist groups, while representing a smaller threat, are as formidable a challenge as the Cuba-Soviet alliance. And while Cuban support for the regime in Caracas is fairly well known, Iran, too, has been offering Venezuela technical assistance in the areas of defense, intelligence, energy, and security. Iranian as well as Cuban personnel are advising, protecting, and training Venezuela’s security apparatus.

Of more strategic significance is the possibility that Iranian scientists are enriching uranium in Venezuela for shipment to Iran. Venezuelan sources have confirmed this possibility. Foreign intelligence services consulted by the author acknowledged these rumors but are unable to confirm them. If confirmed, these actions would violate U.N. sanctions as well as U.S. security measures.

If the United States really intends to expand its relations with Cuba, Washington needs to address Havana’s troublesome alliances with rogue regimes — above all, its friendship with Tehran. These alliances — as well as the desire of the Cuban military to remain in power and transfer control to younger, but still conservative, anti-American leaders — are a troubling sign that internal liberalization will be slow and difficult. No matter how much Washington may want to see a new and friendlier Cuba, the island nation’s choice of allies says more about the future of this relationship than any number of well-meaning declarations.

Obama's Cuba Folly Unfolds

Friday, March 27, 2015
This week, the G-77 issued a declaration conveying its "solidarity and support" for the government of Nicolas Maduro and urging President Obama to repeal the Executive Order that sanctions Venezuelan human rights violators.

Despite its name, the G-77 is a U.N. coalition of 134 developing nations. They include all of Latin America, with the exception of Mexico. Thus, Colombia, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, Costa Rica, Panama, etc.

Let's be clear -- Obama's Executive Order only sanctioned seven Venezuelan officials known for their human rights violations, corruption and criminal activities. As such, it prohibits them from entering the United States and from using our financial system.

Yet, the G-77 nations believe these Venezuelan thugs have some sort of inherent right to visit the United States and to use our financial system for reprehensible acts.

And these nations that the Obama Administration believes will now support us in "pressing" for human rights and democracy in Cuba?

These the nations whose lead we've followed in normalizing relations Castro's dictatorship?

The Obama Administration new Cuba policy is based on two (false) theories: 1. That our regional allies will now support us. 2. That business will influence Castro's dictatorship.

Meanwhile, our regional allies turn a blind-eye to the repression and radicalization of Nicolas Maduro's government, despite the United States being Venezuela's #1 trading partner.

The folly unfolds.

Rubio: Trade With Cuba is "Trafficking in Stolen Goods"

From Farm Futures:

Sen. Rubio calls trade with Cuba 'trafficking in stolen goods'

Sen. Marco Rubio shares his concerns over opening trade with Cuba with state Farm Bureaus.

Imagine if someone came in and stole your farm. The thieves are growing crops on that farm using your land, equipment and investments. Then 15 years later, they sell the crops to the country you used to market to for a profit.

This scenario will play out if the U.S. expands trade with Cuba, according to Sen. Marco Rubio. "Every single piece of farmland in Cuba today, every major agricultural crop was once owned by private owners including American companies," the senator from Florida explained. "They were stolen. They were confiscated. If you allow the import of agricultural goods from Cuba into the United States, you are allowing them to traffic in stolen goods."

While Rubio was not making any presidential announcements to the members of four state Farm Bureau delegations gathered at the Capital Visitors Center, he was talking ag trade with Cuba. Missouri has been on the forefront of petitioning Congress to lift the embargo on Cuba and pursue trade opportunities.

Just last month, Missouri 's First Lady Georganne Nixon, along with Missouri Director of Agriculture Richard Fordyce and members of the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba traveled to Havana to discuss the possibility of opening trade. In all, 75 individuals accompanied them on the trade mission, of those, 30 represented Missouri agribusiness and agriculture commodity interests.

If the U.S. lifts the embargo, estimates show that $4.3 billion in goods could be sold to Cuba annually.

Fordyce said that Missouri wants to be there to capture some of those dollars. "Missouri's agriculture diversity gives us a real competitive advantage because many of the current imports into Cuba are exactly the things we are growing here in Missouri," he said. Missouri is a leading state in producing corn, soybeans, rice, beef, pork, poultry, apples and wine. "These same goods are top imports of Cuba," Fordyce added. "Missouri is well-placed to go into the country."

But despite the room being filled with farmers and ranchers from Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota and Texas, Rubio made it clear that the path some state Farm Bureaus want in regard to lifting the embargo on Cuba is not one he wants to take.

Cause for caution

Rubio's own family comes from a farming background in Cuba. "They were sharecroppers," he said. "They grew tobacco." However, that property his family relied on for a source of income today is completely under the control of the Cuban government.

Rubio shared how the Cuban government through its military's holding company named Grupo de Administracion Empresarial S.A. or GAESA owns the entire Cuban economy. "They own hotels. They own farms. They own everything," he said. "To do business with Cuba would require you to do business with a military dictatorship. And doing business with them is not a two way street."

Currently, there are agriculture goods sold to Cuba, but only on a cash basis, never on credit. "There is a reason why," Rubio told the group. "They don't pay. That is a big problem." He noted that there is $7 billion worth of American claims with Cuba that remain unpaid.

Changing lives

Rubio shared with Farm Bureau members that there is more than just agriculture trade at stake.

"What I primarily care about are the Cuban people," he said.

He explained that if the United States lifts the embargo against Cuba, it loses the political advantage to free the Cuban people from a communist dictatorship. It is a country where the average salary of a government employee is $20 per month.

The embargo serves as "leverage" to require the Cuban government to pursue a democratic society. Rubio wants to see things like independent political parties, individuals to be able to speak out openly and the ability to have freedom of the press. Without these changes, he said, the United States should not pursue trade with Cuba.

N.Y. Post: Havana’s Gruesome Guests

Thursday, March 26, 2015
From The N.Y. Post's Editorial Board:

Havana’s gruesome guests

The Obama administration — eager to normalize relations with Cuba — is plainly paying lip service to demands that Havana extradite 70-plus American terrorists and murderers whom the Castro regime has granted asylum.

In answer, three New Jersey House Republicans aim to use the power of the purse to exert some much-needed pressure.

Reps. Scott Garrett, Leonard Lance and Tom MacArthur have asked both the GOP chairwoman and the ranking Democrat on a key House Appropriations subcommittee to withhold all funding needed to normalize US-Cuban diplomatic ties.

Their particular concern is Joanne Chesimard, a k a Assata Shakur — the Black Liberation Army terrorist sentenced to life in prison in 1977 for the coldblooded killing of New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster. Six years later, she escaped from prison and made her way to Cuba.

She’s far from the only Havana-hosted killer who left a trail of blood in our area. But Cuba insists extraditing Chesimard & Co. is “off the table.”

President Obama is moving ahead anyway.

He has even ordered the State Department to look at taking Cuba off the list of state sponsors of terror — though US law says any nation that serves “as a sanctuary for terrorists or terrorist organizations” belongs there.

One price for full diplomatic ties — including an end to sanctions — must be Cuba’s return of US fugitives to justice. We’re glad New Jersey’s representatives in Congress won’t let the issue be swept under the diplomatic rug.

Lawmakers: Oppose Funding for Normalization Until Cuba Returns Fugitives

Wednesday, March 25, 2015
From NJ.com:

N.J. lawmakers urge no funding for Cuban relations until Chesimard is returned to U.S.

Congress should not approve any money for restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba until convicted cop-killer Joanne Chesimard is returned to the U.S., three New Jersey Republican federal lawmakers said today.

U.S. Reps. Scott Garrett (R-5th Dist.), Leonard Lance (R-7th Dist.) and Tom MacArthur (R-3rd Dist.) made the request in a letter today to fellow Republican Rep. Kay Granger of Texas, who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee that approves spending on foreign operations, and the panel's ranking member, Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.).

"Any attempt by the Obama administration to normalize relations with Cuba must include the extradition of Joanne Chesimard back to New Jersey so that she can face justice and serve out her sentence," the lawmakers wrote. "Until Cuba accepts this condition, we request all funds directed toward normalization be withheld.

Today's letter is the latest attempt by the New Jersey congressional delegation to make Chesimard's return a condition of resuming diplomatic relations with Cuba. U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.).told Secretary of State John Kerry in a letter last month that Chesimard and other fugitives must be extradited before Cuba is removed from a list of state sponsors of terrorism.

In January, members of the state's congressional delegation called on President Obama to make Chesimard's extradition "an immediate priority,"

Chesimard escaped prison and fled to Cuba after being sentenced to life imprisonment for the 1973 murder of Trooper Werner Foerster during a gunfight. Chesimard and other members of the Black Liberation Army had been stopped by State Police on the New Jersey Turnpike. In 2013, she became the first woman on the FBI's list of most wanted terrorists.

The calls for Chesimard's extradition have grown louder since Obama in December announced a "new approach" to Cuba, which has been under a U.S. embargo for a half-century, and said he would easing economic restrictions and move toward re-establishing diplomatic relations with the communist regime.

Bernadette Meehan, a National Security Council spokeswoman, told NJ Advance Media in January that the administration "will continue to press in our engagement with the Cuban government for the return of U.S. fugitives in Cuba to pursue justice for the victims of their crimes."

A Cuban official, Gustavo Machin, a deputy director of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told Yahoo News in February that Chesimard's extradition was "off the table."

Quote of the Day: A Divided Europe on Cuba

The [European Union] High Representative's position is not straightforward, because Europeans remain divided on Cuba — as they do on other topics. Some of the member states from the former Eastern Bloc — such as the Czech Republic or Poland — have cold feet about reinstating diplomatic ties without human rights guarantees, while others want to resume political dialogue.
-- Jean-Jacques Kourliandsky, Latin America expert at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations (IRIS), VICE News, 3/25/15

Russian Spy Ship Returns to Cuba (to Monitor EU Talks)

Tuesday, March 24, 2015
During the first round of normalization talks between the U.S. and Cuba, Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson was greeted in Havana by a Russian spy ship, The Viktor Leonov.

Then, Jacobson's second visit to Havana "coincided" with North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Su Yong's visit; a pro-Nicolas Maduro protest and the arrest of over 100 Cuban dissidents.

Today, the European Union's foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, made her first visit to Cuba.

Mogherini was greeted by the same Russian spy ship, The Viktor Leonov, which had returned to the Port of Havana and with a "coincidental" visit by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

This was a not-so-subtle reminder of Cuba's support for Russia's aggression against the Ukraine.

Clearly, none of these are acts of "good-faith" by Castro's regime.

Nonetheless, they will continue and become more egregious -- as Castro (now) knows there will be no consequences.

It's a win-win for him.

Coming Out of the Closet for Castro Inc.

This morning, anti-sanctions lobbyists and talking heads were giddy with excitement that the Treasury Department ("OFAC") had removed a few dozen individuals, companies and vessels from the Specially Designated Nationals ("SDN") list.

The SDN list contains the names of specific persons and entities -- mainly in third countries -- linked to a regime under U.S. sanctions.

Those linked to Cuba are persons and entities (phantom and otherwise), which are agents of Castro's regime.

Note these aren't "independent entrepreneurs" or "cuentapropistas" -- they are, quite literally, Castro Inc.

So why would anyone be so excited about doing business with Castro's shady companies and agents, particularly in third countries?

After all, these inarguably serve no benefit whatsoever to the Cuban people.

Amid their jubilation, these activists failed to realize that those removed from the SDN list were individuals who have died, companies that have closed and vessels that are out of commission -- a routine scrubbing of the list.

But their intentions were clearly revealed.

Some media outlets also got caught up in the sensationalism of this story.

Kudos to Reuters for getting (this one) right:

U.S. removes dead Cubans, sunken ships from sanctions list

The United States removed 45 companies and individuals from a Cuba sanctions blacklist on Tuesday, most of them dead people, defunct companies or sunken ships.

Among them was Amado Padron, a Cuban executed by a firing squad 26 years ago along with Arnaldo Ochoa, a decorated army general who was sentenced to death by Cuba's communist government after he was found to be connected to international drug trafficking.

The U.S. Treasury Department said the delisting was aimed at clearing "out-of-date" names from its list of Specially Designated Nationals.

Washington bans those designated from trading with U.S. individuals or companies, who face heavy fines if caught doing business with them.

The Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) removed six people, 28 companies and 11 vessels from the list as part of an ongoing review of older cases. Four of the people are dead and two were delisted because the companies they were affiliated with were dissolved, officials said.

The ships had either sunk or were otherwise not operational.

Florida Senate Overwhelmingly Opposes Obama's Cuba Deal

From AP:

Florida Senate Votes to Send Message to Obama on Cuba Policy

The Florida Senate voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to send President Barack Obama a message that it opposes his decision to renew diplomatic relations with Cuba.

The three-page message to Obama and Congress expresses "profound disagreement" with the president's decision last December to restore relations with the communist nation just 90 miles off the Florida coast. It says Fidel and Raul Castro have mistreated Cuban citizens since they took power in 1959.

"The actions of the Castro brothers have resulted in the impoverishment of the Cuban people and a complete and blatant disregard for human rights and democratic principles," it reads.

The message was sponsored by three Cuban-American senators: Republicans Anitere Flores, Miguel Diaz de la Portilla and Rene Garcia of Miami-Dade County.

"We're blessed to live in the best country in the world, a country that was founded on enshrining basic freedoms. The Cuban government does the opposite. They want to take away those freedoms from their people every day and at every moment," Flores said.

The only objection came from Democratic Sen. Arthenia Joyner of Tampa, who said she supported Obama's decision.

"His moving this forward is an effort to bring freedom to the Cuban people," Joyner said.

But Diaz de la Portilla said the policy will only empower the Castros. He said it is naive to think that the Castros will change "by sending American cash so that Americans can buy Cuban cigars and Cuban rum and vacation in those hotels that are on stolen property."

He said Raul Castro said the day the policy was announced that he wasn't going to change his principles.

"And what are the Castro brothers' principles? Oppression, dictatorship, lack of human rights, murder, stealing property, shipping weapons to North Korea, participating in state terrorism," Diaz de la Portilla said.

"This new policy will ensure that the Castro regime stays in power."

A similar message is awaiting a House vote.

How Obama Cut a Cuba Deal: Lies, Hypocrisy and Secrecy

This week, Reuters took a retrospective view of the process leading up to President Obama's December 17th agreement with Cuban dictator Raul Castro.

It's entitled, "How Obama outmaneuvered hardliners and cut a Cuba deal."

The title gets it half-right -- Obama did indeed cut a Cuba deal, but it was Obama who was (sadly) outmaneuvered by Castro.

Let's begin with the overall premise, which Reuters overlooks:

In December 2009, the Castro regime took an American hostage, development worker Alan Gross, whom it wanted exchanged for five Cuban spies convicted by U.S. federal courts, including one serving a life-sentence for murder conspiracy. Castro had also demanded a series of policy concessions.

That began a long process of how Obama could conduct such a trade (in fact), while denying it (in rhetoric) -- or of how Castro's ransom demand could be sugar-coated (no pun intended) with the least political impact to Obama himself.

It was done through lies, hypocrisy and secrecy.

1. Lie to the Cuban-American community. In one paragraph, Reuters purports that Obama "took advantage of a generational shift that greatly reduced the political risk" in announcing his Cuba deal. Yet, in the following paragraph, it recognizes how it wasn't until after his re-election (2012) that Obama instructed aides to make Cuba a priority and "see how far we could push the envelope." And it wasn't until after the very last midterm election (2014) of his presidency, which saw Florida anti-embargo gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist lose and U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia (D-FL) go down with him, that Obama announced his Cuba deal. Oh, and of course, only after waiting methodically for Congress to leave for the holidays.

Instead, here's what Obama had told Cuban-Americans during the 2008 election: "I will maintain the embargo. It provides us with the leverage to present the regime with a clear choice: if you take significant steps toward democracy, beginning with the freeing of all political prisoners, we will take steps to begin normalizing relations."

Meanwhile, during the 2012 election, the Obama campaign exploited how Republican nominee Mitt Romney's VP pick, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), had previously voted in Congress to lift the embargo: “That did their ticket a lot of harm with Cubans and allowed us to at least get a hearing with them about many other economic issues,” an Obama campaign official admitted to The Financial Times.

So much for political bravado.

2. Lie to Congress and the families of murdered Americans. For years, the Obama Administration told Congress and the families of the American victims of the imprisoned Cuban spies, that there would not be a prisoner swap for Alan Gross. It wasn't until months into the negotiations that Rolando Sarraff, a U.S. agent imprisoned in Cuba since 1995, suddenly dawned upon them. As Reuters itself states, with Sarraff, "the White House could claim it was a true 'spy swap,' giving it political cover." In other words, it could lie.

If you remain unconvinced on this point, click here to watch an exchange between U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) and Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson at a recent House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing. Then judge for yourself.

So much for justice.

3. Hypocritically use the Pope's "moral influence." Reuters reveals how Obama, together with U.S. Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Dick Durbin (D-IL), decided to solicit (and maneuver) Pope Francis' intervention, in order to use his "moral influence" as a shield from criticism by Cuban-American lawmakers.

Yet, these are the same people who are now holding up anti-sex trafficking legislation in the Senate because they want the victim's fund in the bill to also pay for abortions.

Of course, we all know where Pope Francis stands on this. But suddenly, he is of little consequence.

So much for "moral influence."

4. Hide the details from Congress and the American people. Reuters claims that "Obama at first froze out the State Department in part due to concern that 'vested interests' there were bent on perpetuating a confrontational approach." That's funny. The State Department's bureaucracy would have been Obama's most willing accomplice in cutting this deal.

The reason why Obama kept this negotiation within The White House -- and had his speechwriter lead the team -- is to not be accountable to Congress or the American people. It would extend executive privilege upon those White House officials not to have to testify before Congress and answer questions to the American people. Meanwhile, the State Department could claim "ignorance" about the process and details.

So much for transparency.

Russian Foreign Minister Arrives in Cuba Today

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov arrives in Cuba today.

Here's the statement released by Russia's Foreign Ministry:

On Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s upcoming visit to Cuba

On March 24, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will go to Cuba. The visit will be held ahead of the 55th anniversary of the restoration of diplomatic relations between Russia and Cuba on May 8 this year.

During their talks, Sergey Lavrov and Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez of Cuba will discuss a wide range of current international and regional issues and bilateral relations, including trade and economic cooperation.
Cooperation with Cuba, Russia’s long standing and reliable partner in the Latin American region, is based on the Declaration on Principles of Mutual Relations between the Russian Federation and the Republic of Cuba signed in Havana in 1996 and the Memorandum on Principles of Strategic Cooperation signed in Moscow in 2009.

Russia and Cuba maintain regular political dialogue at the high and summit levels. Russian presidents have visited Cuba three times: in 2000 on an official visit and in 2008 and in July 2014 on work-related visits. The President of the State Council and the Council of Ministers of the Republic of Cuba, Raúl Castro, visited Russia in 2009 on an official visit and in 2012 on a work-related visit.

In February 2013, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev made a visit to Cuba.

Since 1996, Russian and Cuban foreign ministers have made 12 mutual visits. In May 2013, Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez of Cuba made an official visit to Russia. Sergey Lavrov visited Havana in April 2014. The foreign ministers of Russia and Cuba regularly meet on the sidelines of UN General Assembly sessions and other international events. Their latest meeting was at the 28th session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on February 2, 2015.

Under the 1993 Protocol, the Russian and Cuban foreign ministries hold regular political consultations on international, regional and bilateral issues. In 2013, they signed a plan of consultations for 2014-2016, under which they have held two rounds of political consultations in 2015 at the level of deputy foreign ministers, which were attended by deputy foreign ministers of Russia Vasily Nebenzya and Mikhail Bogdanov.

Close or matching positions on the main regional and international issues and strict compliance with the standards and principles of international law, primarily the UN Charter, and commitment to strengthening the central role of the UN and its Security Council provide a solid foundation for the deepening of Russian-Cuban cooperation on the international stage.

Cuba traditionally supports Russian priorities within the framework of the UN General Assembly. Havana voted against the UNGA resolution titled “Territorial integrity of Ukraine,” which was adopted on March 27, 2014, and co-authored a resolution on the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, which was adopted at Russia’s initiative at the 69th session of the UN General Assembly. The 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War will be festively marked in Cuba, where May 9 is an official holiday.

Work is underway to improve the contractual framework of Russian-Cuban relations.

Apart from political cooperation, the upcoming talks in Havana will also focus on ways to promote bilateral trade and economic ties. An important issue concerns preparations for the 13th meeting of the Russian-Cuban Intergovernmental Commission for Trade, Economic and Science and Technology Cooperation in Kazan on April 22, which will be a format to discuss increasing bilateral trade and the diversification of bilateral cooperation. To achieve this goal, the sides are considering projects in power generating, industrial and transport infrastructure, biotechnology, civil aviation, space exploration, healthcare and other sectors. Russia and Cuba continue to develop cooperation in education. Russia has approved the allocation of 100 scholarships for Cuban students at Russian universities in the 2015-2016 academic year.

Russia welcomes the nascent normalisation of Cuban-American relations. The practical steps taken by the United States and Cuba to normalise bilateral dialogue meet the interests of both countries and promote international security.

Russia has always advocated lifting the US trade and economic blockade of Cuba.

At the upcoming Russian-Cuban talks in Havana, the foreign ministers will discuss the implementation of the agreements reached by President of Russia Vladimir Putin and the President of the State Council and the Council of Ministers of the Republic of Cuba, Raúl Castro, in July 2014 in Moscow, and the coordination of the countries’ approaches to key current issues.

Raul Castro, You Fear Being Unmasked

Monday, March 23, 2015
Open Letter to Raul Castro by Cuban democracy leader, Antonio Rodiles:

Your speech at the extraordinary ALBA summit reconfirms that you and your group are going to try to hold onto power at all costs. It doesn’t matter if the Cuban people are sunk in misery and desperation, it doesn’t matter if your children continue to escape this disaster, you people intend to remain and to demolish everything.

Your speech said that Cuban “civil society” will unmask the mercenaries and their bosses, I again remind you, your brother and your group are the greatest traitors and anti-Cubans and your spokespeople and repressors are the real mercenaries.

You have imprisoned, executed, expelled, punished, harassed and humiliated great Cubans, you and your brother will go down in history as the worst sons of this land.

If you are so sure of your pathetic spokespeople, why do you block an important group of Cubans who want to travel to Panama? Why impose limits on our freedom of movement? Why have you cancelled passports? If you and your band weren't so sinister, your false discourse would be laughable.

You won’t allow ex-prisoners from the Group of 75 to travel, people like: Ángel Juan Moya, Arnaldo Ramos Lauzarique, Eduardo Díaz Fleitas, Félix Navarro, Héctor Fernando Maseda, Iván Hernández Carrillo, Jorge Olivera, Marta Beatriz Roque Cabello, José Daniel Ferrer, Oscar Elías Bicet. And artists like: Ailer González Mena and Tania Bruguera. And activists like: Egberto Escobedo, Hugo Damián Prieto Blanco and Antonio G. Rodiles, among others.

You fear being face to face with worthy Cubans, you tremble at the mere thought that you will hear sharp and direct truths face-to-face. You and your brother, you are nothing more than dark dictators whom we will manage to throw out so that our people, once and for all, can live in freedom, peace and prosperity.

Antonio G. Rodiles, 17 March 2015

Tweet of the Day: Only One Nation Has Invaded Venezuela (Twice)

All this fuss about a gringo 'invasion' while the fact is #Venezuela has only been invaded twice. By #Cuba in the 60s. And again today by #Cuba. 

First-Hand Look: How Obama's Cuba Policy Will (Sadly) Play Out

The Obama Administration knows exactly how its counter-productive Cuba policy will play out with Castro's military dictatorship and its neighbors.

It has seen it first-hand in Burma.

By Nikolay Anguelov in Foreign Affairs:

Development Before Democracy

Why ASEAN Isn't Pressuring Myanmar to Reform

Nearly two years after the United States lifted its economic sanctions on Myanmar (also called Burma), the ruling military regime continues to repress the country’s people. Although the rapprochement between the United States and Myanmar had been proffered on the promise of economic, democratic, and social reform, the national outlook only grew darker in subsequent years as Myanmar President Thein Sein cracked down on the press, freedom of assembly, and religious minorities.

And so, in early 2014, after the World Bank published a damning report on Myanmar’s negative economic reality, U.S. President Barack Obama extended the executive orders that prohibit U.S. businesses and individuals from investing in Myanmar. Obama’s justification was that Thein Sein was not demonstrating enough progress and that the Myanmar government’s “actions and policies pose a continuing unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.” Despite Obama’s rebuke, members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which are Myanmar’s main trading and investment partners, seem unfazed by Thein Sein’s lackluster reform efforts. Even worse, they might support it.

The reason ASEAN supports Thein Sein is simple: members of the group accrued significant financial benefits during the 20 years of sanctions on Myanmar, and they may not be eager to give them up. Myanmar's regional partners enjoy uniquely protected positions in its resource-rich economy; true economic and political reforms may jeopardize these advantages if they lead to an increase in market competitors. As the United States tightened sanctions over 20 years, China, Germany, India, Japan, Malaysia, and Thailand became Myanmar’s main trading partners, accounting for over 90 percent of the nation’s trade by volume. Multinational corporations (MNCs) from these countries conducted business in the nation through preferential trade deals established by the secretive military regime. The business of those MNCs fueled the wealth of military regime members, their families, and supporters. An example is Tay Za, the self-proclaimed richest man in Myanmar who is the son of a retired lieutenant colonel who worked in high positions during the sanction years for Myanmar’s Ministry of Industry. During those years, it is reported that Tay Za became a close associate of the former chairman of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) General Thura Shwe Mann. Because of those connections, Tay Za is first on the list of 3,000 Myanmar nationals against whom targeted sanctions remain in place. Despite sanctions both past and present, Tay Za runs a network of companies with holdings ranging from mining and tourism to telecommunications, aviation, and banking that work with trading partners in China, Malaysia, Russia, and Thailand. Tay Za’s conglomerates make over $500 million a year and are poised to enter a stage of unhindered growth now that easing sanctions make Myanmar more attractive for foreign investment.

During the sanction years, all trade deals were executed through Myanmar’s licensing structures: the SPDC and the Union Solidarity and Development Association. Both the SPDC and the USDA acted as political parties as well as government-controlled corporations. The USDA appointed regional heads of township associations that were responsible for establishing joint ventures with MNCs. Township associations dictated the terms of regional economic growth, creating labor markets and jobs for local residents. Membership in these associations provided citizens with improved job prospects as well, leading many to sign up in order to better their economic circumstances. Expansion in regional industrial operations first had to be cleared through joint venture partnerships with local government-owned entities. It was the SPDC that controlled this federal aspect of economic affairs, and all foreign firms that did business in Myanmar had to do so via partnership with the party. This remains true today, as the SPDC’s former leadership still controls Myanmar’s economic activity.

Cuba’s Human Rights Wane as U.S. Ties Improve

From The PanAm Post:

Activists Warn Cuba’s Human Rights Wane as US Ties Improve

Campaigners Report Wave of Arrests to Inter-American Court

Human-rights violations against Cuban opposition activists “have continued and increased” since the United States and Cuba began diplomatic talks in December, campaigners from the Caribbean island claimed on Thursday.

Sara Martha Fonseca of the Ladies in White opposition group and the Cuban Democratic Directorate’s John Suárez and Janisset Rivero presented their complaints at an Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) hearing in Washington on March 19.

“It is important that human-rights organizations like this one understand that the rights situation in Cuba will worsen,” Rivero argued, “because negotiations between the Obama administration and the [Castro] regime are unidirectional and give legitimacy and strength to the repressive regime.”

“As the regime’s support increases, repression will also surge,” the activist claimed, saying that Washington should throw its weight behind the “civic movement” rather than bolstering the government of Cuban President Raúl Castro.

“We don’t want to see Cuba becoming China. We don’t think that foreign investment and cosmetic reforms will bring Cuba the freedom that it deserves,” Rivero added. “There have been 56 years of dictatorship. There must first be freedom to allow openness for the rest of society.”

Rivero also said that during the 18 months of “secret” negotiations between Washington and Havana, aggressions against Cuban opposition “have grown exponentially,” with hundreds of arrests taking place within the first half of March alone.

Of particular concern for the Cuban activists is a “pre-criminal” law which has allowed the government to imprison many prior to any offense being committed, allegedly to silence their “social discontent.”

IACHR commissioner Tracy Robinson in turn emphasized that the specialized agency of the Organization of American States (OAS) had already expressed “concern” over the human-rights situation in Cuba.

Robinson, a commissioner for Jamaica and the IACHR Rapporteur on the Rights of Women, added that Cuba had been asked to “take advantage” of the normalization of ties with Washington to make human-rights concessions, and to make use of IACHR resources and norms.

Must-Watch: Women Lead Pro-Democracy Protest in Havana

Sunday, March 22, 2015
Last month, two European journalists were detained in Cuba after taping a protest in Havana by the opposition group, Cuban Patriotic Union (UNPACU).

The journalists, Jaana Kanninen and Jessica Stolzmann, worked for Finland National TV and Radio (YLE).

On February 3rd, they stumbled upon a protest by UNPACU's Sonia de la Caridad González Mejías and Melkis Faure Hechavarría.

Both activists were standing on a corner yelling "Down with the dictatorship!", "Down with Raul Castro!", "Respect the People!", "We Want Change!" and "Respect the Opposition!"

Note how the crowds gathered around them in curiosity and solidarity. Then, minutes later, state security arrived on the scene telling people to scream "Viva Fidel!"

The European journalists began taping the protest -- and were consequently arrested and expelled.

Needless to say, the two UNPACU activists were also arrested.

Click below (or here) to watch the protest:

Quote of the Day: On Russia's Strategic Relations With Cuba

I am absolutely convinced that nothing threatens our close, partner and strategic relations with Cuba. We see no signs that someday everything will be different.
-- Sergei Lavrov, Russian Foreign Minister, when asked about Obama's outreach to Cuba's dictatorship, Rossiya-1 television channel, 3/21/15

An Illusory Opening to Cuba: Why Florida Shouldn’t Walk Through the Breach

By Keith Fernandez in The Journal of the James Madison Institute:

An Illusory Opening to Cuba: Why Florida Shouldn’t Walk Through the Breach

Many have cheered President Obama’s Dec. 17, 2014 announcement calling for changes in our relationship with Cuba as a sort of victory. His administration will unilaterally provide concessions to the Castro regime in Havana and he subsequently called for lifting the embargo at his 2015 State of the Union speech. However, the facts paint a bleak picture. While the Obama administration and its allies cast concessions as necessary to secure the release of wrongfully imprisoned USAID contractor Alan Gross, the unfortunate reality is that this negotiation, if it can be called that, was akin to a mountain of presents under the Castro regime’s Christmas tree.

President Obama’s call to lift the embargo has ignited a controversy as to whether our country should continue to stand with Cuban pro-democracy leaders. While some in Florida may be tempted by the Castros’ off-key siren song to take advantage of business opportunities, any who believe it is wise to lift the embargo and venture into these waters should keep this regime’s history in mind before taking the plunge.

Lifting the embargo and extending credit to the Castros would only fuel the regime’s repressive apparatus and put businesses at a commercial risk as there is already a mechanism in place for secure sales to Cuba. So-called “cash-only” sales of agricultural products, where payment must be received in advance, have occurred from many states. These types of sales have ensured businesses are not fleeced by the notoriously debt-laden Castro regime. It also allowed for a safe-harbor for businesses in dealing with Cuba since, ironically, special rules had to be enacted so that American businesses could count on what is essentially a routine practice in commerce: a normal and dependable trade relationship where both parties hold up their end of the bargain. It may be surprising to some but the Castros’ practice of placing an order and then forgetting their wallet is a time-honored regime trick.

While a cogent argument can be made regarding agricultural sales to the Castro regime on a cash-only basis, it is difficult to discern what doing business with a regime that regularly refuses to pay debts confers on Florida’s businesses. Although some advocate for increased commerce with Cuba for commerce’s sake, that is, to not be left out of the marketplace, what merchant would wisely trade with a customer who is a notorious credit risk and expect a change in the customer’s paying habits? It may at times be commendable to “always look on the bright side of life,” as advised in Monty Python’s Spamalot, but opening up American businesses to considerable risk for little to no return on commercial transactions with the Castro regime will most certainly ensure the last laugh will be on our business community.

Also, those looking for redress in Cuban courts to the non-payment of any future (or past, for that matter) debts incurred will be severely disappointed. Americans will encounter a ramshackle system of justice as the Cuban regime’s kangaroo courts have a history of show trials and lack any semblance of due process.

Cuban courts have been traditionally hostile to American interests. The regime’s court system’s track record already consists of de facto ratification of approximately $8 billion seized in confiscated property, plus another $2 billion owed for criminal judgments. Even considering recent overtures to the dictatorship that not an iota of Cuban judicial ink has been spilled to right past illegal property expropriation is a testament to the biases inherent in the system where American citizens and businesses cannot get a fair hearing. If there is no strong, independent judiciary to speak of in Cuba, to whom can Americans turn when they suffer similar expropriation, depravation, or even just a run of the mill breach of contract? As the famous (to those of us who came of age in the 90s) Michael Franti sang, in Cuba there is “false advertising sayin’ ‘Halls of Justice.’” Florida businesses would be wise to consider the risks of trading with Cuba.

Opponents of  the embargo against the Castro regime often argue that despite current agricultural sales to Cuba, more can and should be sold to those on the island and, following these sales, the Cuban people will be empowered by the proliferation of goods to demand their basic human rights. This theory presupposes that, like in a capitalist system, the benefits of trade will eventually trickle-down to the people and all Cubans will derive some benefit, no matter how small, from an increase in goods and services. However, proponents of this theory frequently overlook the fact that the entire world, except for the United States, has open trade relations with Cuba with no corresponding increase in human rights.

Those who advance this Maslow-esque hierarchy of needs argument discard the fact that the Cuban regime, run by career oppressors, is not interested in advancing the Cuban people’s commercial, political, and/or personal well-being. Havana’s modus operandi is to reap the benefits of trade without allowing any commensurate benefit to the people it has under its repressive thumb. For example, those wishing to build a hotel in Cuba must partner with the regime in a joint venture where the regime retains a controlling stake. The regime then permits the operation of the hotel but insists on hiring the workers and, in an arrangement that would make even the most flagrant Ponzi scheme kingpins blush, they collect dollars, euros, or whatever international currency is destined to pay the Cuban workers and instead pay the currency’s 1:1 equivalent in pesos. By way of example, a Cuban hotel worker who was promised $260 a month will be paid 260 Cuban pesos a month, which converts to roughly $10 USD.

This type of bait and switch is the rule, not the exception, in the Castros’ decrepit dealings. This outdated relic has survived the Cold War and subsequent years by relying on international patrons whose interest in Cuba was more important than their business acumen. Cuba has managed to convince autocratic regimes around the world, be it the former Soviet Union or more recently Venezuelan autocrats that helping a fellow totalitarian regime would pay dividends. Luckily for those on the island and abroad advocating for human rights and the rule of law, both dangerous concepts in today’s Cuba, international largesse is not what it once was and the regime is looking at deteriorating subsidies from its just as repressive enablers.

Finally, some have argued that in addition to the commercial benefits to Florida, an increase in travel will also benefit the Cuban people. Though many imagine travel to be an opportunity to explore a country, the sad fact of the matter is that travelers in Cuba are some of the least connected people on the island. Travelers often go to and stay in beach resorts and tourist areas, choice jobs for those most loyal to the Castro regime. Contact with Cubans who do not work in the tourism industry is often monitored and controlled.

Cuba is no more a feel-good vacation destination than a trip to sunny North Korea. The weekly repression of the members of Las Damas de Blanco (the Ladies in White), a group of women who march peacefully and silently in protest of the regime for arresting and jailing political prisoners, should give anyone pause before booking their next charter flight to Havana. Even if Floridians are willing to lose money in a botched commercial transaction with the regime, they should not be willing to lose their essential moral value of standing up for those who are oppressed. If Florida is truly to lead in the 21st century, we must stand for what is right, not because it is popular.

Many Floridians may have dreamed of traveling to Cuba or have begun to wonder what exciting investment opportunities await in a land that has fascinated so many. However, it is the wrong time for Floridians, and indeed any American, to invest in Cuba. The sad fact of the matter is that Cuba’s failed economy is controlled by the military, with an almost non-existent court system, and a track record of fleecing those with whom it trades.

A quick infusion of Floridian cash through tourism or any other method of trade will only serve to perpetuate a hostile environment for American business owners and empower a deplorable violator of human rights only 90 miles from our shores.

A wiser use of Florida’s business resources would be to prepare for the day that a democratic government that respects the rule of law is in place on the island. Businesses would have control over who they hire, access to courts, and the ability to rest assured that their investments not only help the Cuban economy generally but that the Cuban people will see the benefit of those transactions. Our state is poised to play a pivotal role in a free and democratic Cuba. We should ensure our legacy is one of supporting a market-based economy with guaranteed human rights instead of a decrepit dictatorship whose legacy will be confined to the dark annals of history.