Category Archives: Cuba

Nestle, Cuba lay first stone for $55 million coffee and biscuit factory

Reuters

HAVANA (Reuters) – Cuba and Swiss firm Nestle (NESN.S) on Tuesday laid the first stone of a $55 million coffee and biscuits factory joint venture in the Mariel special development zone, the latest major foreign investment in the Communist-run island.

Nescor is Cuba’s third joint venture with Nestle and reflects President Raul Castro’s drive to attract international capital to help update the Soviet-style command economy and stimulate growth.

Cuba created the zone around the Mariel port just west of Havana four years ago, offering companies significant tax and customs breaks. Its aim to replace imports with Made in Cuba goods has become all the more pressing because aid from socialist ally Venezuela is falling, resulting in a cash crunch.

Nestle Vice President Laurent Freixe said in an interview after the symbolic stone-laying ceremony that negotiations with Cuban partner Coralsa and Mariel authorities had taken just 18 months, a “record speed”.

The factory would be operating at the end of 2019 manufacturing coffee products, said Freixe, head of Nestle’s Americas division. Biscuits and other culinary products would come later. The company exports goods to Cuba and the other two joint ventures are one producing ice cream and the other bottled water and other beverages.

Nescor goods would be destined both for the Cuban market and tourists visiting Cuba, while it could eventually also export Cuban coffee, Freixe said.

Nestle last year already exported Cuban coffee as a limited “Cafecito de Cuba” edition of Nespresso single-use brewer pods, including to the United States.

“It sold at an impressive speed,” said Freixe. “Within a few days that line was sold out, which shows the potential.”

Before being able to export Cuban coffee, Nestle would first need to help Cuba increase its harvest, Freixe said, which has steadily declined since the 1959 revolution.

The new factory could double Nestle’s turnover in the country over the medium term from $135 million currently, he said.

So far, Cuba has approved 31 projects for the Mariel zone including nine with multinationals, Director Ana Teresa Igarza said at the ceremony.

There was no longer the same flurry of business interest in the zone as when it was created but the interest that remained was more serious, she said.

Mariel was on the list of Cuban entities that the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump banned U.S. firms from doing business with.

Just one U.S. company, Rimco, the Puerto Rican dealer for heavy machine maker Caterpillar (CAT.N), has signed a deal with Mariel to open up shop there, getting approval just on time before the new U.S. regulations were issued earlier this month.

Igarza declined comment on whether Mariel continued to negotiate with other U.S. companies but said it would be open to doing so.

Cuba had the lowest election turnout in four decades. Is the government losing its grip?

The Miami Herald

The voter turnout for Cuba’s recent elections would be considered massive most anywhere. But in a country under communist rule for nearly six decades, Sunday’s unprecedented drop in the number of ballots cast shattered the illusion of unanimity at a time when the country faces a complex generational transition of power.

The 85.94 percent turnout for island-wide municipal elections was the lowest participation since the late Fidel Castro imposed a socialist version of elections in 1976.

Another 8.19 percent of the votes were left blank or annulled, according to official numbers made public on Monday by the president of the National Electoral Commission (NEC), Alina Balseiro. That represents more than 20 percent of the population who didn’t care enough to vote or rejected the government-sanctioned candidates.

“The results show that they are losing their grip, that they are not as strong as they used to be,” Cuban opposition activist Ailer González said.

Sunday’s round of balloting was for 12,515 members of 168 municipal People’s Power Assemblies, Cuba’s version of local governments. The process will conclude in February when the newly elected members of the National Assembly of People’s Power select the head of the Councils of Ministers and State.

Election results came in late on Monday and stories on the outcome were quickly buried in the state-controlled press.

But the lower-than-expected turnout was clear by 5 p.m. Sunday. The NEC reported that 82.5 percent of the more than 8.8 million registered voters had cast ballots and extended the voting period for one hour, to 7 p.m., because of “intense rains in central and eastern Cuba,” according to the official Communist Party newspaper Granma.

A turnout of nearly 86 percent would be extremely high for any Western democracy. But in Cuba turnout usually hit 97-98 percent during the 1980s and 90s, and was slightly lower in the 2000s.

Voter turnout started to noticeably drop after 2010, the first elections after Raúl Castro officially succeeded his older brother Fidel, and hit 90 percent in the last election in 2015.

The real numbers this year may be even lower than what was announced, according to opposition activists who have long questioned the official statistics made public by the NEC.

“Their trustworthiness is zero for me. It’s naive to believe that they are going to honorably count the results,” said dissident Antonio Rodiles. Turnout is usually very high, he added, “because even though people know that it’s theater, they also know that they keep track of who votes.”

Among the tactics regularly used to get voters to precincts are home visits during election day to ask people why they have not yet voted, Rodiles added. “They often use children, the so-called Pioneers, who also deliver ballots to the homes” of disabled voters.

Turnout in the island’s second largest city, Santiago de Cuba, was “very low,” José Daniel Ferrer, head of the dissident Cuban Patriotic Union, said in a video posted on the internet Sunday. Communist party militants “were desperately going house to house in the late afternoon looking for voters who refused to go to the polls.”

The weekend elections had been postponed for a month because of disruptions caused by Hurricane Irma. The results indicate that the successor to Raúl Castro, who has promised to retire in February, will inherit a country very different from the one ruled since 1959 by the Castro brothers.

Granma published a photo of Raúl Castro casting his vote Sunday morning, but the official comments to the news media came from Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel, another hint that he is Castro’s most likely successor.

The future presidents of Cuba “will always defend the Revolution and will rise from among the people. They will be elected by the people,” Díaz-Canel told journalists.

“Are people forced to vote or do they take on a duty, take on an expression of continuity” in the socialist system? he asked. “I believe in continuity and I am certain that we will always have continuity.”

As in past years, Rodiles said, the government launched an intense campaign to get out the vote that included posters, TV announcements and “information linking the balloting to the regime’s continuation.” The state’s news media monopoly highlighted the fact that Sunday came one year and one day after Fidel Castro’s death.

Dissidents reported earlier that authorities had blocked more than 100 opposition activists linked to the #Otro18 campaign from running in the municipal elections.

A group also linked to #Otro18, the Citizen Observers of Electoral Processes, said the balloting was normal but alleged some “incidents” that damaged “the transparency of the process.”

Authorities blocked eight of its members from monitoring the counting of the ballots and kept about 20 voters from casting ballots around the country.

“There’s also a report that in one polling place … in Santiago de Cuba, a group of elderly voters were coerced to vote for one of the two candidates,” the group reported.

The organization said it deployed more than 270 observers in 13 of the 15 provinces — a small number for the more than 24,000 polling centers around the country — and added that its information “came from polling places closely monitored and with verifiable information.”

Cuba does not allow international observers to monitor its elections.

Ferrer said several members of his group were detained Sunday to block their plans to monitor vote counts. Opposition activist Rosa María Payá alleged similar harassment against members of Cuba Decide, a campaign demanding a plebiscite on the island’s political system.

Payá, Ferrer and other activists have been urging voters to deface their ballots or write in “Cuba Decide” or “plebiscite.” Several dissidents turned up at polling stations Sunday to request that blank or annulled votes be tallied as part of the total votes cast. The majority needed for election is now based on the number of valid votes cast. All the requests were denied.

“Today proved the Cuban electoral farce,” Payá said in a video recorded in Havana. “It proved the regime is afraid to count on the support of all Cubans.”

Despite a growing sense of political apathy and discontent in the country, González believes that the results won’t create a crisis for the Castro government. “They’ll use it to create an apparent sense of credibility and that the island is a normal country. In no country do 100 percent of people vote.”

Tillerson says U.S. weighing closing embassy in Cuba over sonic attacks

Reuters

The United States is considering closing its embassy in Havana in response to an alleged sonic attack on U.S. personnel in Cuba, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Sunday.
“We have it under evaluation,” Tillerson said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” program. “It’s a very serious issue with respect to the harm that certain individuals have suffered.”
Five Republican senators on Friday called for the Trump administration to retaliate against the Cuban government by expelling Cuban diplomats and possibly shuttering the U.S. embassy there over attacks that began in late 2016.
The State Department said in August that Americans linked to the U.S. embassy in Havana had experienced physical symptoms from “incidents” involving sound waves. Five Canadians were also affected.
Symptoms included nausea, dizziness and temporary loss of hearing or memory.
Cuba, the United States and Canada have investigated the attacks, but the probe has not yielded any answers about how they were carried out or who was responsible for them.
Cuba has denied involvement. The U.S. State Department has not blamed Havana for the attacks but asked two Cuban diplomats to leave Washington in May.

Botched surveillance job may have led to strange injuries at US embassy in Cuba

The Guardian

Reports of Cuba’s Deafening ‘Covert Sonic Device’ Are Only Getting Stranger

CNN 

The State Department has remained tight-lipped about the strange circumstances in which US diplomats to Cuba reportedly suffered permanent hearing damage from an “inaudible covert sonic device.” But new details reveal that “a deafeningly loud sound similar to the buzzing created by insects or metal scraping” was also used to harass the American envoys. What’s more, the number of people who were harmed is reportedly even greater than was previously known.

According to government sources speaking to CNN on the condition of anonymity, at least 10 US diplomats and family members have been treated for various symptoms following the unexplained attacks that are believed to be part of a concerted harassment campaign. Five Canadian diplomats and their family members have also experienced some sort of “symptoms.” From the report:

In some of the attacks a sophisticated sonic weapon that operated outside the range of audible sound was deployed either inside or outside the residences of US diplomats living in Havana, according to three US officials.

The weapon caused immediate physical sensations including nausea, headaches and hearing loss.

Other attacks made a deafeningly loud sound similar to the buzzing created by insects or metal scraping across a floor, but the source of the sound could not be identified, the two US officials said.

The additional information that victims heard traditional, irritating sounds within the human hearing range certainly makes the reports of permanent hearing damage more understandable. And the revelation that family members were also affected makes this all sound more plausible. But still, if the sound was loud enough to cause damage, how could it possibly be so hard to identify the source? And were any neighbors in the areas that US diplomats were living not also suffering?

The fact that the psychological warfare on diplomats reportedly began in the fall of 2016 and remained secret until this month has made everything all the more mysterious. The New York Times reports that at least six patients were flown from Havana to The University of Miami at an unspecified time this year when a panicked Trump administration could not figure out what was wrong with the victims. The Times was told that “a sonic wave machine” was believed to have caused the symptoms which apparently became worse with prolonged exposure. Sources also claimed that one person had developed a blood disorder.

Steve Dorsey from CBS Radio in Washington DC was the first to ask State Department Press Secretary Heather Nauert about the situation when she gave a press conference on August 9th. Nauert appeared to be taken aback by the question and stumbled to give the vaguest answers possible—only being willing to confirm an “incident” in which diplomats experienced “physical symptoms.” She also acknowledged that some American diplomats had come home and two Cuban diplomats were sent home from Washington, D.C. on May 23rd. “There was so much that harkened back to the days of the cold war that it was hard to believe at first,” Dorsey told Radio National. His initial source said at least one of the victims has been deaf for 10 months, and there are concerns it may be permanent.

Considering that President Trump has criticized the reopening of diplomatic relations with Cuba, and has called it “a completely one-sided deal,” it’s easy to be skeptical of this as all being some sort of cloak and dagger stunt to make Cuba look bad. The US embassy remains “fully operational” and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has only said, “We hold the Cuban authorities responsible for finding out who is carrying out these health attacks on not just our diplomats but, as you’ve seen now, there are other cases with other diplomats involved.” For hawkish Republicans, the incident has been an opportunity to point fingers at the Cuban leadership that they never wanted to deal with in the first place. “The Cuban government has been harassing U.S. personnel working in Havana for decades.” Marco Rubio told Dorsey on August 9th. “This has not stopped with President Obama’s appeasement.” Writing for Foreign Policy’s “Elephants in the Room” blog, Jose R. Cardenas declared, “Cuba is up to its old tricks again.”

But Cuba has repeatedly denied any involvement or knowledge of the attacks, setting up a special investigative unit to get to the bottom of the matter. The fact that Canadians were targeted as well certainly confuses the situation because the two nations have consistently had a good relationship since the US first cut off ties with Cuba in 1959. Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security in the Obama administration, told The New York Times “It just doesn’t strike me as something the Cuban government would do.” He says that “they’ve been pragmatic about Trump,” and indeed the president has done very little to scuttle the new relationship, despite his tough talk. This leads some to believe that a third country is trying to sabotage the US/Cuba relationship.

But even if we knew who was responsible for this bizarre circumstance, we still don’t know how such an attack would work. As far as what kind of weapon could be used to damage hearing without producing an audible sound, most outlets have had to resort to very cursory speculation. When Gizmodo originally reported the incident, we reached out to several experts on hearing damage to ask if they were aware of any scientific basis for such a device. No one wanted to give their medical perspective on the record and all seemed genuinely confused by the scenario.

The US Air Force has acknowledged its testing of “Direct Energy Weapons” and acoustic weapons that “use sound across the entire frequency spectrum to kill, injure, disable, or temporarily incapacitate people.” But the results of those tests and details of the weapons remain murky. And a study from 2014, showed that the human ear does respond to low frequencies that are typically understood to be outside the human range of hearing, but it made no conclusions about potential long-term damage.

New Scientist did manage to get Dr. Toby Heys, Leader of the Future Technologies research center at Manchester Metropolitan University in the UK, to speculate on what kind of device could possibly do what’s being reported in Cuba. Heys said that sound waves below the human range of hearing could theoretically cause damage but enormous subwoofers set to extremely high volumes would be required. The only other possibility he was aware of is directing ultrasound into the ear cavity, but he says this would have to be highly targeted with a clear path from the device to the victim’s ear. “It is all very Philip K. Dick territory,” Heys told New Scientist, acknowledging the tinfoil hat-nature of the circumstances.

If some nation really does have a weapon that causes hearing damage using inaudible sound, it would signal a new, terrifying chapter in psychological warfare. And it’s quite understandable that the US government would want to keep every detail of that situation secret. Generally, Heys is skeptical of the stories surrounding this incident but acknowledges, “we are living in a fairly surreal world right now.”

Nicolas Maduro Doesn’t Really Control Venezuela

Article pubished in The Atlantic by Moisés Naím

It’s hard to pick the Venezuelan president’s greatest flaw. Which is more serious: his cruel indifference to the suffering of his people, or his brutal autocratic behavior? Which is more outrageous: his immense ignorance or the fact that he dances on television while his henchmen murder defenseless young protesters in the streets? The list of Nicolas Maduro’s failings is long, and Venezuelans know it; over 80 percent of them oppose him. And it’s not just Venezuelans. The rest of the world has also discovered—at last!—his despotic, corrupt, and inept character.

And yet … Maduro doesn’t really matter. He is simply a useful idiot, the puppet of those who really control Venezuela: the Cubans, the drug traffickers, and Hugo Chavez’s political heirs. Those three groups effectively function as criminal cartels, and have co-opted the armed forces into their service; this is how it is possible that every day we see men in uniform willing to massacre their own people in order to keep Venezuela’s criminal oligarchy in power.

When Nicolas Maduro Was Dictator for a Day

The most important component of this oligarchy is the Cuban regime. Three years ago I wrote: “Venezuelan aid is indispensable to prevent the Cuban economy from collapsing. Having a government in Caracas that maintains such aid is a vital objective of the Cuban State. And Cuba has accumulated decades of experience, knowledge, and contacts that allow it to operate internationally with great efficacy and, when necessary, in a way that is almost invisible.” Havana’s priority remains controlling and plundering Venezuela. The supply of oil from Venezuela to Cuba is no longer as steady as it once was, due to the production troubles of the state-run oil company PDVSA. But the flows, while intermittent, have continued. Moreover, Cuban companies are the intermediaries of choice for many critical imports of foods and medicines to Venezuela.

And Cuba’s leaders know how to keep their Venezuelan allies in power—namely by exporting their own successful military-control strategies to Venezuela. Cubans have perfected the techniques of the police state at home: constant but selective repression, extortion and bribery, espionage, and persecution. Above all, the Cuban regime knows how to protect itself from a military coup: That is the main threat to any dictatorship, so controlling the armed forces is an indispensable requirement for a self-respecting dictator.

The Venezuelan regime has adopted these tactics. The effects are obvious: Officers who do not sympathize with the Maduro regime have been neutralized, while those who support it have gotten rich. It is no coincidence that there are more generals in Venezuela today than in NATO or the United States. Or that many high-ranking officials are exiled, imprisoned, or killed. That is why the hope that a group of patriotic, democratic, and honest officers will defend the nation, and not those who plunder it, has so far been only a hope.

But, in addition, Cuba—in stumbling across Venezuela—happened upon one of the most unprecedented gifts in the annals of geopolitics: Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chavez, the president of a petro state who happily invited a bankrupt dictatorship to exert enormous influence in some of his country’s vital functions, from elections, economic policy, and politics to, of course, military and citizen surveillance. Cuban “advisers” were deployed at critical government agencies and soon started vetoing the decisions of the Venezuelan officials and in some instances imposing their views. The Venezuelans who resisted them were transferred or fired. The surprising influence that Cuba gained in Venezuela was essentially due to the close political alliance and deep emotional attachment that Chavez developed toward Fidel Castro. But even today, more than four years after Chavez’s death, the Venezuelan government makes few important decisions that are not stealthily influenced by the Cuban regime.

Another important player in today’s Venezuela is the drug traffickers, whose power is also a constraint on Maduro. Venezuela is one of the main drug routes to the U.S. and Europe. This status is worth billions of dollars, and the country is home to a vast network of people and organizations that control the illicit trade and the enormous amount of money it generates. According to U.S. officials, one such person is Vice President Tareck El Aissami, and so are a large number of military officers and other relatives and members of the ruling oligarchy.

This oligarchy, made up of Chavez’s political heirs, is the third major component of the real power in Venezuela. Of course, Maduro; his wife, Cilia Flores; and many of his relatives and associates are part of that oligarchy. In this elite there are different “families,” “cartels,” and groups that compete for influence on government decisions, for political appointments, and for the control of illicit markets—ranging from human trafficking to money laundering. The smuggling and selling of food, medicines, and all kinds of products are just a few of the many other corrupt activities that enrich the Maduro oligarchy as well as the Cubans, the military, and their civilian accomplices.

Getting rid of Maduro is necessary. But it’s not enough as long as three criminal cartels—who are intermingled in business, corruption, and the exercise of power—continue to control Venezuela.

View article at The Atlantic