While thousands of Cubans suffer, the Castros refuse to accept US help


The Telegraph

Cuba has turned down offers from the United States of assistance to rebuild their country in the wake of Hurricane Matthew, in a sign that the relationship between the Cold War foes remains frustratingly frosty.

Several US-based charities have said the Cuban government is refusing to let them fly in aid, while the US government’s international development department, USAID, told The Sunday Telegraph that they have not sent any relief to Cuba – despite sending millions of dollars in assistance to other affected countries.

Fidel Castro, now 90, set the tone, stating after President Barack Obama’s historic March visit: “We don’t need the empire to give us anything.”

And his government seems determined to prove him right.

“We have not received a request from the government of Cuba for assistance,” said a spokesman for USAID. By contrast, the US has been highly active in Haiti, Jamaica and the Bahamas, and contributed significant funds since the October 4 hurricane – the most ferocious storm in almost a decade.

Hurricane Matthew devastated swathes of the Caribbean – flattening houses, ripping up power lines and smashing crops. Almost 1,000 people were killed or injured in Haiti – the worst affected country – and 1.4 million left in need of aid.

Cuba has not reported any fatalities, but the oldest town in the country, Baracoa – founded on the spot where Christopher Columbus first set foot – was ripped apart.

Wildy Bernot Rodriguez, who runs the Canacuba B&B, gathered 40 people inside his home to weather out the storm – including his wife Merqui, two toddlers Nathan and Hadassa, and two-month-old Aron.

“It’s absolutely terrible what has happened,” he told The Sunday Telegraph. “It is incredible hard. We’ve gone back in time 100 years.

“It’s over for us.”

That there were no fatalities is due to the efforts of the Cuban authorities, who had worked hard to evacuate 1.3 million people from as much of the high-risk areas as possible.

Volunteer civil defence members went door to door, advising residents to evacuate, while Cuban state TV ran storm advisories on a loop and officials blared warnings from vehicles with loudspeakers.

Continue reading While thousands of Cubans suffer, the Castros refuse to accept US help

Colombian University Students Paint Over Controversial Che Guevara Mural



On the night of Tuesday, October 18, a group of students painted one of the most emblematic walls of the National University of Colombia.

A group of college students allegedly painted over the face of Che Guevara over night, possibly in response to university officials being indecisive about whether to paint over the imagine or not themselves.

The wall makes up the back of the Leon De Greiff Santander auditorium facing what is commonly referred to as the school’s “Che” plaza. The university was famous for having painted the image of the guerilla leader there in the 1980s.

A survey conducted through student email revealed that most people on campus did not agree with the presence of the image.

Che was one of the guerrillas more representative of the Cuban Revolution. Students critical of his image claimed the main square of the school should represent all students, not just those who share his ideology.

The image was painted in the ’80s when a group of masked students removed the statue of Francisco de Paula Santander from the square, which until that date bore his name.

This is the second attempt to remove Che’s image. During the first time, a group of students broke the paint-rollers of those seeking to paint a different image over that of Che.

One of the students in an interview with the website Vice News said that they want to eliminate the image of “Che” and paint something that best represents the student community and the history of Colombia.

The painted image was released on Twitter by a councilman as a complaint. However, it has provoked many reactions from both those wanting to remove the image and those who want it to stay.

Why we should back Tania Bruguera’s presidential bid for a free Cuba



The Guardian

Art is good at pointing out simple truths that otherwise get forgotten, or conveniently ignored. Cuban artist Tania Bruguera has just announced that she is running for president of Cuba when Raul Castro steps down – as he has said he will – in 2018.

There’s just one snag. You can’t run for president of Cuba. The socialist island is not a democracy but a one-party state. Bruguera’s “artivism”, as she calls it, is a satirical performance that draws attention to the embarrassing reality that Cuba’s rulers are not freely elected by the people. “Let’s use the 2018 elections to build a different Cuba,” she says, “to build a Cuba where we are all in charge and not just the few.” She says she hopes “to change the culture of fear” with her utopian bid for the presidency.
Wait a minute. Fear? The rule of the few? What can she be talking about? This does not sound like the Cuba some people so love to sentimentalise – the socialist paradise in the sun where rum is bountiful and the only cloud on the horizon is evil Uncle Sam. Acknowledging that the US is roundly criticised by the UN for its trade embargo, Cuba’s undemocratic way of running things gets a very soft ride in certain quarters. In July the leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, went to an event staged by the Cuba Solidarity Campaign, which defends “the Cuban people’s right to be free from foreign intervention” – meaning the spectre, no longer very likely, of a US invasion. The Cuba Solidarity Campaign also says on its website that it opposes the US economic blockade, but when it comes to Cuba’s own democratic deficit, it has nothing to say. Instead it supports the one-party state that Bruguera accuses of instilling fear and the rule of the few.

She may be Cuban, but does she really know anything at all about Cuba? Doesn’t she know its people are happy, and that the only thing threatening their freedom is the US? Really, she needs to go to a Labour party conference fringe meeting to be re-educated by the Cuban ambassador.

And by the way, isn’t it a funny coincidence that Raul Castro has the same surname as Fidel Castro, the revolutionary leader who shaped modern Cuba ? Oh wait… Raul is Fidel’s brother. Well, surely it’s good to keep things in the family. Wise, as well, that in addition to being president of the council of state and president of the council of ministers he is also commander in chief of the armed forces. I mean, why bother separating those powers? Oh, and Raul Castro is also first secretary of the central committee of the Communist party of Cuba. In the eyes of Bruguera, this somehow smacks of an undemocratic, and even frightening, one-party state. No wonder the secret police have had to deal with her in the past.

Perhaps she is a CIA operative. Or perhaps she is a courageous dissident using the freedom of art to tell some very basic truths about her people’s desire for democracy. Just for the record, Amnesty International shares her scepticism about Castro’s glorious utopia. It reports that in Cuba in 2015/16, “severe restrictions on freedoms of expression, association and movement continued. Thousands of cases of harassment of government critics and arbitrary arrests and detentions were reported.” Vote Bruguera for a free Cuba.

Flights from Cuba pose security threat


The Post and Courrier

In pursuing his historic opening of relations with Cuba, President Barack Obama has frequently pushed legal and political boundaries. Now congressional Republicans are up in arms about another such initiative: an airline travel agreement they say exposes the United States to dangerous security gaps at Cuban airports.

Congressional committees charged with overseeing the Department of Homeland Security and Transportation Security Administration have engaged in a months-long feud with the administration over security vulnerabilities at 10 Cuban airports that have begun direct flights to the United States. The lawmakers say the lapses increase the risk of terrorists, criminals, drugs and spies entering the United States.
The security dogs that can be seen at Cuban airports are “mangy street dogs” that were fraudulently posed as trained animals, the TSA’s top official for the Caribbean, Larry Mizell, told congressional officials behind closed doors in March, according to these officials. He also told them that there are few body scanners at the Cuban airports and that those in place are Chinese-made versions for which no reliability data exists.

When direct commercial flights began in August, federal air marshals were not allowed on them by order of the Cuban government. No TSA personnel can be stationed at the Cuban airports. All of the local airport employees for the U.S. carriers are being hired, vetted and paid by the Cuban regime, lawmakers said, and the United States has not been given information that resulted from their vetting or how it was conducted.

“In an effort to secure Obama’s legacy on Cuba, they rushed to get it done without doing the proper due diligence,” said Rep. John Katko, R-N.Y., chairman of the Homeland Security Committee’s subcommittee on transportation security. “Our concern is oversight, to make sure what the agency tells us we can verify. There are still a lot of things we don’t know. What we do know is troubling.”

Two TSA officials told me that agency personnel have made several visits to each of the 10 Cuban airports that have been certified as “last points of departure” for direct flights to the United States and that the agency is confident they are safe for Americans to fly to and from. All 10 airports meet the minimum standards for security under U.S. and international law, the officials said.

But the TSA officials declined to comment on any of the vulnerabilities identified by the oversight committees, citing those details as “security sensitive information.” Several congressional officials said that when Mizell, the TSA official, originally told lawmakers and staff about the problems, no claim was made about information sensitivity. But when the committee convened open hearings on the issue, officials refused to repeat the facts in public.

The TSA officials also said the Cuban government had finally agreed to allow federal air marshals on commercial flights to and from Cuba on Sept. 26. The administration has not provided the text of that agreement to Congress because it was still being translated from Spanish to English, the officials said.

In June, a group of lawmakers tried to visit the Cuban airports to review matters for themselves, but the Cuban government denied their visas. House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, the leader of the would-be delegation, told me that the administration, which he said denied repeated requests for assistance and information, was ultimately responsible for thwarting congressional oversight.

“It is my responsibility to ensure that any administration puts the safety and security of the American people above all else,” McCaul said. “Like with the Iran deal and so many other times, the Obama administration prioritizes legacy building at the expense of national security.”

Only days after the lawmakers were denied visas, NBA basketball legend Shaquille O’Neal was granted a visa to visit Cuba as part of a State Department cultural exchange program.

The congressional Republicans sounding the alarm about the Cuban airports also oppose Obama’s overall Cuba policy and doubt that thawing relations with the government of Cuban President Raúl Castro will encourage reform there. That debate likely won’t be resolved for many years, but when it comes to airport security, they certainly have a point.

“Cuba remains a state sponsor of terrorism that is allied with some of the most despicable regimes in the world, from Iran to North Korea, and I can’t comprehend how this administration has allowed commercial flights to Cuba without the proper vetting and security procedures in place at each of the Cuban airports,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., told me.

The security situation at Cuban airports is an open invitation for any bad actor who wishes to do harm to the United States to try to board a flight to the United States with whatever dangerous contraband they can carry.

If that’s the price of Obama securing his Cuba legacy, it’s not worth it.

Josh Rogin is a columnist for The Washington Post.

List Shows Obama Administration Got Gifts From Iran and Cuba


The Wall Street Journal

The Obama administration’s annual gift haul in 2015 included trinkets from friendly allies — as well as two new “frenemies”: Iran and Cuba.

The State Department published its disclosure of gifts to U.S. officials from foreign government sources in the Federal Register on Wednesday, and the list for the first time included offerings from Havana and Tehran. The year 2015 is the latest accounting available.

That’s the year when the U.S. removed Cuba as a state sponsor of terror before the two countries restored diplomatic relations. Iran remains on the terror sponsor list, but ties between the two countries warmed somewhat following negotiations and implementation of an international nuclear deal.

Secretary of State John Kerry, who negotiated on the nuclear agreement with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, received a book from Mr. Zarif valued at $400, according to the annual accounting. The disclosure said the volume was retained by the government for official display. Former Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, a lead negotiator in the nuclear talks, also received gifts from Iranian counterparts.

Rules allow U.S. officials to accept gifts valued at more than $375 only if refusing them would cause embarrassment to the offering government or to the U.S. Such gifts must be reported and transferred to the government, under U.S. rules. Gifts from foreign governments to U.S. officials less than $375 in value don’t have to be reported or transferred. Gifts greater than $20 in value are not allowed from any source other than foreign governments.

In 2015, Mr. Obama received an assortment of gifts from his Cuban counterpart, President Raul Castro, including cigars, Cuban music, a Guyabera shirt, four bottles of spirits, a humidor and some perfume.

As part of the warming relations with Cuba, Mr. Obama met with Mr. Castro in Panama in 2015 and made a historic trip to Cuba in March 2016.

Among the inventory of artwork, linens and books were a bronze sculpture to Mr. Obama from Saudi Arabian King Salman, valued at more than $500,000; a basket of chocolates to First Lady Michelle Obama from Moroccan officials valued at more than $800; and a set of bone china cups presented to the deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency — from an undisclosed foreign donor.

Mr. Kerry received a gift from his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov when he went to Sochi in 2015, though it wasn’t listed in the federal register because it was valued at less than $375.

Mr. Lavrov presented Mr. Kerry with a Victory Day shirt and two gift bags of potatoes and tomatoes. Russia had celebrated the 70th anniversary of Victory over Europe day the week before and the U.S. and several of its allies didn’t send high level delegations in a what was seen at the time as a snub. The potatoes echoed a gift of Idaho potatoes Mr. Kerry had previously given Mr. Lavrov.

Amid rising U.S.-Russia tension, Putin weighs reopening air base in Cuba


Fox News Latino

Amid rising tensions between Moscow and Washington, the administration of Russian president Vladimir Putin is considering setting up an air base in Cuba, according to the Washington Post.

Russian officials have been hinting at an interest in bringing back a military base presence in Cuba, but aren’t saying outright of any concrete plans or what discussions, if any, they are having with officials of the island nation that sits a mere 90 miles from U.S. shores.

Citing Russian news reports, the Post said that Russian Deputy Defense Minister Nikolai Pankov indicated that the military is “reviewing” the closing of an intelligence base in Cuba – as well as that of a naval base in Vietnam – in the early 2000s.

Cuba closed the base, according to published reports, because of financial problems associated with it, as well as U.S. pressure.

Russia is looking to expand its global presence, the Post reported, to compete, in a way, with the United States.

“As for our presence on faraway outposts, we are working on this,” Pankov said.

The Post said that Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Putin, would not elaborate about restoring a presence in Cuba and Vietnam. All he would acknowledge, the Post said, was that Russia finds itself having to look for ways to address global developments.

Russia just ratified a treaty with Syria last week that enables it to have its first permanent air base in the Middle East.

Putin has repeatedly expressed support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The Soviets established the base in Cuba following the 1962 missile crisis, which involved Moscow’s desire to put nuclear weapons in Cuba.

That base, which was located about 150 miles from U.S. shores, offered the ability to the Soviets to intercept U.S. communications.

Some international affairs experts remain skeptical about a return of a Russian base to Cuba.

“I will believe this is a real possibility when I hear it from Cuba and Vietnam. A country needs to want this,” Olga Oliker, director of the Russian and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., told the Miami Herald.

“Russia is looking to increase its global posture from a prestige point of view, to show that it is a world power, and, like the United States, it also has global bases,” said Oliker. “The question is what would Russia offer [Cuba and Vietnam] in exchange for the countries allowing these bases. I’m not sure how interested the Cubans are given the recent restoration of relations with the United States.”

Russian Military Considers Return to Cuba, Vietnam


ABC News

The Russian military is considering the possibility of regaining its Soviet-era bases on Cuba and in Vietnam, the Defense Ministry said Friday, a statement that comes amid growing U.S.-Russia tensions over Syria.

Deputy Defense Minister Nikolai Pankov told lawmakers Friday that the ministry is considering the possibility of establishing footholds far away from Russia’s borders.

Responding to a lawmaker’s question if the military could return to Cuba and Vietnam, Pankov said the military is “reviewing” a decision to withdraw from them, but didn’t offer any specifics. “As for our presence on faraway outposts, we are doing this work,” he said.

In 2001, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the military to pull back from Cuba and Vietnam as he sought to bolster ties with the United States. The U.S.-Russian relations now have plunged to the lowest point since the Cold War times amid strain over Syria and Ukraine.

Moscow has lamented that Washington never appreciated Putin’s goodwill gesture.

Asked Friday about the possibility of the Russian military’s return to Cuba and Vietnam, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov refrained from specific comment, but added that the global situation requires various players to mull possible responses.

“Naturally, all countries assess those changes from the point of view of their national interests and take steps they consider necessary,” he told reporters.

When Putin ordered the military withdrawal from Cuba and Vietnam, Russia was still reeling from its post-Soviet economic meltdown. Putin cited the need to cut costs when he explained reasons behind his move to the military.

Windfall oil revenues in recent years have filled the government’s coffers with petrodollars, allowing the Kremlin to fund an ambitions weapons modernization program and turn the military into a more mobile modern force.

Amid the deterioration of ties with the West, the military began pondering plans to re-establish its global presence. A small naval supply facility in the Syrian port of Tartus is now the navy’s only outpost outside the former Soviet Union.

Oleg Nilov of A Just Russia, one of the factions in the Kremlin-controlled lower house, pointed at the U.S. and its NATO allies’ deployment near Russian borders as he argued that Russia needs to regain its Soviet-era bases

“It’s time to reach agreements to return to faraway outposts if they don’t understand the language of diplomacy,” he said during debates.