House Defeats Efforts to Ease Cuba Sanctions

Friday, July 8, 2016
U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford (R-SC) just presented and withdrew his amendment to the 2017 Financial Services Appropriations bill that sought to allow tourism travel to Cuba.

Pressed by The White House and lobbying interests after it was clear the amendment was going to be widely defeated -- on a bipartisan basis -- the Sanford amendment was publicly withdrawn.

Rep. Sanford himself acknowledged his defeat on the House floor -- "I see the handwriting on the wall."

Similarly, last night, an amendment by U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford (R-AR) that sought to allow financing for agricultural sales to Cuba was also withdrawn.

However, the Financial Services Appropriations bill still contains nearly a half-dozen provisions that would tighten sanctions towards the Castro regime, including a ban on all financial transactions with entities owned by the Cuban military and intelligence services.

Today's events end any hype and speculation regarding Congressional action to ease sanctions towards Cuba.

House Passes Bill That Tightens Cuba Sanctions

From Travel Weekly:

The House of Representatives on Thursday night approved a measure that would put an end to the people-to-people exchanges used by tour operators and the Fathom cruise line to run Cuba trips.

The House also approved a measure that would prohibit financial transactions with the Cuban military. That impacts travel, according to a report by the geopolitical intelligence firm Stratfor, since the military runs much of Cuba’s tourism infrastructure, including hotels and tour companies.

Still, resistance from President Obama and the Senate means the House proposals face long odds of becoming law.

The measures were contained within the far broader House financial services appropriations bill, which passed by a count of 239 to 185 Thursday night on a largely party line vote.

The proposal that would end people-to-people exchanges would do so by tightening the definition of educational exchanges, one of the 12 approved categories under which Americans can travel to Cuba, to only include educational travel involving academic programs. At present, people-to-people exchanges are allowed under the education exchanges provision.

Congressman Pulls Proposal to End Cuba Travel Sanctions

From Travel Weekly:

Saying it stood no chance of victory, Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) on Thursday evening withdrew a proposal to end the remaining restrictions on travel by U.S. citizens to Cuba.

Given the fact that the Speaker is working against this amendment, I see the handwriting on the wall so I think it is best to withdraw,” Sanford said on the House floor.

The proposal was to have been offered as an amendment to the House financial services appropriations bill, which was under debate Thursday night on the House floor.

In withdrawing the amendment, Sanford thanked his five co-sponsors as well as the approximately 130 other House members who had supported the measure.

“This amendment ultimately was about American liberty,” he said, arguing that the travel restrictions on Cuba haven’t worked to topple the Castro regime.

Though Sanford’s amendment is off the table, language that would roll back some of the steps the Obama administration has taken to open travel to Cuba remained in the financial services bill that the House was expected to vote on Thursday night.

The bill would eliminate the people-to-people travel provision used by tour operators and the Fathom cruise line to run Cuba trips. It would do so by tightening the definition of educational exchanges, one of the 12 approved categories under which Americans can travel to Cuba and the one that includes the people-to-people provision, to only include academic programs.

Chairman Duncan: Obama's Cuba Airline Policy Endangers Americans

Obama Administration’s Cuba Airline Policy Proposal Endangers Americans

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, U.S. Congressman Jeff Duncan (R-SC-03), Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs’ Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, released the following statement on the U.S. Department of Transportation’s proposal to select U.S. airlines and cities for scheduled service between the U.S. and Cuba, which could begin as early as this fall:

Chairman Duncan – “The Administration’s craving to reach legacy milestones in its U.S.-Cuba policy shift has led to a mad rush to sign agreements with the Cuban government without ensuring basic safeguards of security. Lest we forget, Cuba is the number one counterintelligence threat to the U.S. in Latin America. It also has very limited airport security equipment, most of which is Chinese-made, and Cuba recently chose a Russian company to handle its air traffic control system. Cuba has given no clarity on whether security vetting of airlines employees will occur or how they will scan for terrorist threats with such few assets. Yet, the Administration is forging ahead without getting anything in return. This is incredibly dangerous for the American people and comes right on the heels of the Castro regime’s denial of visas to two U.S. Congressional delegations last week that planned to investigate airline security vulnerabilities. It also puts the cart before the horse, allowing direct flights before we’ve seen any progress on human rights or any resolution on outstanding U.S. certified property claims.”

Senator Menendez on Obama's Proposed Flights to Cuba

Menendez Statement on Proposed Direct Flights from Newark-Liberty to Cuba

U.S. Senator Bob Menendez today released the following statement in reaction to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s proposal to open up 15 direct commercial airline routes from American cities to Cuba, including a daily flight from Newark-Liberty International Airport to Havana:

Cuba is a totalitarian dictatorship that was a state-sponsor of terrorism, which continues to harbor American hijackers and terrorists as heroes—including Joanne Chesimard, convicted of killing New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster—and remains a key ally of some of the world's most dangerous terrorist organizations and enemies of the United States. Since every Cuban airport worker is employed directly by the regime and its airports lack the technology and security capabilities we’ve grown to expect in the United States, I have serious concerns entrusting the Castros to protect the lives of Americans flying in and out of Cuba.

This is further exacerbated, and perhaps most immediately for potential American travelers, when in the last week, two Congressional delegations (one from the House Homeland Security Committee and another from the House Transportation Committee) were denied visas to visit Cuba to investigate security-related issues regarding expanded commercial flights to Cuba.

As with other decisions stemming from the President’s reversal of longstanding policy on Cuba, the opening of commercial flights to Cuba accomplishes nothing in terms of bringing about change on the island, puts the safety and security of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who travel each year to Cuba at risk, violates the will of Congress as codified in the Libertad Act and elsewhere, and may actually violate the law, which clearly spells out the conditions necessary for loosening sanctions. The regime has done nothing to meet those conditions, yet the Administration continues to unilaterally concede to its demands.

I understand the President’s desire to make his deal with the Castros a legacy issue, but there is still a fundamental issue of freedom and democracy at stake that goes to the underlying conditions in Cuba and whether or not the Cuban people, still repressed and still imprisoned, will benefit from the President’s legacy. The Castro regime has taken no steps to earn the unilateral award of new commercial flights. To the contrary, the regime can be expected to use the proceeds from this new stream of money to strengthen the security apparatus that ensures the Castros’ tight grip on power.”

Amid Obama Bailout, Cuba Braces for Venezuelan Crisis

Tuesday, July 5, 2016
From Reuters:

Cuba plans cuts in fuel, electricity consumption: sources

Cuba has ordered some state firms and joint ventures to reduce fuel and electricity consumption, a senior diplomat and the director of a foreign joint venture said on Thursday, in the latest sign a crisis in ally Venezuela is hurting the economy.

While it was not clear exactly what triggered the cuts, Cuba's President Raul Castro warned in December that the economy would go through a rough patch in 2016, citing the impact of low oil prices on the trade relationship with Venezuela.

The extent of the rationing, which is expected to take effect in July and be announced next week at a session of the National Assembly, is expected to depend on the sector but there are signs some of the belt-tightening could be quite sharp.

"I saw a copy of the Economy Ministry instructions to the state oil and electricity monopolies yesterday; it stated quotas would be reduced up to 50 percent through the end of the year," the foreign director of a joint venture said on condition of anonymity.

"I called the ministry that supervises our company and they said the level of cuts to our sector were still under discussion," he said.

Low oil prices have taken Venezuela to the brink of economic collapse and destabilized its leftist government, which ships Cuba 90,000 barrels of oil per day as part of an exchange that sends tens of thousands of Cuban professionals to Venezuela.

So far Venezuela seems to be meeting its oil commitments to Cuba although cash payments for doctors and other Cuban professionals have dried up in the past 18 months, experts say.

North Korea's Special (Concerning) Relationship With Cuba

From NK News:

Kim Jong Un meets with Cuban envoy

Kim Jong Un meets Cuban delegation for second time in one year

North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un met with a special envoy from Cuba, the North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency reported Friday.

Salvador Antonio Valdes Mesa, member of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba (CPC) and vice president of the Council of State of Cuba, visited North Korea as a special envoy on behalf of Cuban President Raul Castro Ruz, leading a delegation of Cuban officials. His delegation arrived at Pyongyang on Tuesday.

Kim emphasized the strong relationship between the DPRK and Cuba

“The Cuban party, government and people are always sided with the Workers’ Party of Korea, Korean government, and Korean people,”

Kim also expressed his feelings about Pyongyang and Havana as allies against Pyongyang’s enemies, likely meant to refer to the United States and its allies.

“Cuba and Korea are located far from one another, but are fighting in the same trench of continuing the joint struggle against imperialism,” said Kim Jong Un.

The Cuban envoy in return said the Cuba-Korea relationship – “started between Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, Fidel Castro and Raul Castro“ – is firmly developing under the particular concerns of Kim Jong Un and Raul Castro, also adding that it is the Cuban government’s adamant policy to improve these relations.

This is the second time that Kim Jong Un has met publicly with a delegation from Cuba. In October of last year, Kim met with a similar Cuban delegation, led by Miguel Diaz-Canel Bermudez, first vice president of the Council of State and member of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee.

Including the previous Cuban delegation, Kim has only met with a total of three official delegations representing foreign governments or political parties. The other envoy with which Kim met was Chinese Vice President Li Yuanchao in July 2013. Otherwise Kim has only met with private citizens such as Dennis Rodman and has publicly snubbed some high-ranking officials visiting Pyongyang, such as Mongolian President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj in 2013.

Russia, Cuba to Sign Nuclear Energy Deal

This is going to end well...

From Russia's Sputnik News:

Russia, Cuba to Sign Deal on Peaceful Use of Nuclear Energy - Moscow

According to Russia's official legal information website, Russia and Cuba will sign an agreement on cooperation in the field of peaceful nuclear energy.

Russia and Cuba will sign an agreement on cooperation in the field of peaceful nuclear energy, the Russian government said in a decree Monday, published on Russia's official legal information website.

Russia's Rosatom nuclear corporation and the Foreign Ministry have been instructed to hold talks with the Cuban side and sign the deal, which has already received preliminary approval from Havana.

A Very Timely Lesson From Elie Wiesel

Sunday, July 3, 2016
It is with great sadness that we receive news of the passing of Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize recipient, Elie Wiesel.

At a time when some are willing to set aside principle and dismiss ongoing horrors for the sake of business interests and political legacy, Wiesel's life-lesson remains more pertinent than ever:

"We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must - at that moment - become the center of the universe."

"For us, forgetting was never an option. Remembering is a noble and necessary act. The call of memory, the call to memory, reaches us from the very dawn of history. No commandment figures so frequently, so insistently, in the Bible. It is incumbent upon us to remember the good we have received, and the evil we have suffered."

"For in the end, it is all about memory, its sources and its magnitude, and, of course, its consequences."

R.I.P. Elie Wiesel.

An Ominous Warning From Cuba's Dissidents

There will be a fatality here [Cuba] at any moment, as a result of the repressive violence of the Castro regime.
-- Berta Soler, leader of Cuba's Ladies in White, on the increased repression in Cuba amid the silence of the Obama Administration and the international community, 6/27/16

Over 100 Cuban Dissidents Arrested Demanding Release of Youth Leader

Over 100 Cuban dissidents were arrested yesterday as they protested in the eastern provinces for the release of youth leader, Carlos Amel Oliva.

Amel Oliva, of the Cuban Patriotic Union (UNPACU), arrived in Havana on Thursday, June 30th, from a visit to Washington, D.C.

The car he was traveling in was intercepted by Castro's secret police, as it made its way from Havana to Santiago de Cuba.

His whereabouts remain unknown.

Ten Things Cubans Cannot Do

Compiled by The Czech Republic's People in Need Foundation:

1. Earn Fair Wage

The salaries in the last decade have risen by about 50%. However as the percentage of salaries rose the list of the things Cubans can get on their ration card got shorter and it currently offers food worth only about $2 a month. According to Cuba's statistics bureau, the average salary of Cuban in 2014 was $22 dollars a month. It is hard to survive on this salary even taking into account that education and healthcare are 'free' on the island.

2. Access the Internet

Only top Cuban elite has slow 56kbp telephone modems at home and it was only in June of last year that the government opened first public wifi spots around the country that support acceptable speeds of 1Mbit per user. However, less than 50 hotspots around the country are certainly not sufficient for the population of more than 11 million and the cost of $2 dollars per hour keeps internet out of reach of majority of the population.

3. Read Free Press

While a lot has been written about Cuban bloggers, due to the low penetration their impact inside Cuba remains limited. Very little has changed on the media market where all dailies, radios and tv stations are owned by the state and controlled by the Communist Party of Cuba. Not only access to printing press is limited, but business quality printers are hard to come by and one of the first independent newspapers is blocked on the Cuban internet.

4. Start a Business

There is a new investment law in Cuba, but ironically it might be easier for a foreign investor to open a business in Cuba that it is for Cubans. Although many Cubans can now open their homes to tourists for accommodation or open a tiny restaurant, the list of activities where private enterprise is permitted is very limited  and even activities such as sale of used clothes is not included not to mention import, export, tourism and other possibly lucrative business where state wants to keep its monopoly.

5. Organize

In every single Latin American country some sort of independent civil society exists and is recognized by the state. Not so in Cuba where –with the exception of some Church groups– not a single Cuban independent non-governmental organization obtained a registration. There are hundreds of these groups, but they have no access to office space or funds as they would have anywhere else in the region.

6. Strike

In Cuba the right to strike is not outlawed, but the law does not guarantee the right to strike either. In spite of the fact that number of independent trade unions exist, they are all illegal and the only trade union allowed to function is the Federation of Cuban Workers directly controlled by the Communist Party of Cuba.

7. Travel Freely

In 2013 the Cuban government lifted the need to obtain an exit visa and since then in theory any Cuban can travel abroad. In practice this is out of reach for majority of Cubans who would have to save number of years of average salary to be able to afford a plane ticket, and more importantly, many of them face interrogations and harassment by the authorities upon their return.

8. Protest in the Streets

Street protests are regular occurrence all over Latin America and, although Cuban government often supports these protesters and their demands around the world, it does not permit any visible protest anywhere in Cuba. Known trouble makers are preventively put in jail or in house arrest even before they have a chance to organize especially before high profile public events. Small groups that, in spite of  constant  government vigilance succeed in marching in the street, are promptly arrested or beaten.

9. Get a Fair Trial

Neither Cubans or foreign nationals can be assured that their trial in Cuba will be fair. Judges are directly controlled by the government, there are no independent legal firms and all attorneys have to be employees of the state. While there are groups of Cuban independent lawyers, they are not allowed to practice independently or represent anyone in court. Many detainees spend years in jail waiting for sentence that is never handed down.

10. Vote Freely

While elections take place regularly these are neither free or fair. The Communist Party is the only legal political party in Cuba, even though parties across the political spectrum requested registration, it was never granted to them. In addition, no independent candidate has a chance to be elected for a meaningful post in the current electoral system.