Venezuelan dictator, born in Colombia, flies to China, on a Cuban plane, looking for American dollars
A Brazilian news magazine has accused former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of acting as lobbyist in Cuba for Brazil’s largest engineering firm Odebrecht, which built the container terminal at the Cuban port of Mariel.
In this week’s edition headlined “Our man in Havana,” Epoca magazine cited Brazilian diplomatic cables about visits to Cuba by Lula after he had left office. During those visits he sought to further Brazilian business interests on the island, it said.
One cable from 2014 reported on a meeting in Havana at which Lula discussed with Odebrecht executives how to secure Cuban guarantees for loans from Brazilian state development bank BNDES to finance new projects sought by Odebrecht in Cuba.
Lula’s foundation called the Epoca story “offensive” and “malicious” and “criminal manipulation” of government documents.
“These are normal activities. The ex-president did nothing illegal and was discussing sovereign guarantees for loans to Cuba in a meeting where a diplomat was present,” said Jose Chrispiniano, a spokesman for the Lula Institute.
Lula is under investigation for improperly using his influence to benefit Odebrecht, whose billionaire chief executive Marcelo Odebrecht was arrested in June in connection with the massive bribery and political kickback scandal focused on state-run oil company Petroleo Brasileiro SA.
Prosecutors say Lula frequently traveled abroad at Odebrecht’s expense after leaving office, from 2011 until 2014.
The inquiry puts the legacy of one of Brazil’s most popular former leaders on the line at a time when some are calling for the impeachment of his chosen successor, President Dilma Rousseff, for alleged campaign finance irregularities.
Epoca, owned by the Globo media group, said Lula lobbied to get Cuba good terms for a $682 million loan from BNDES that went to finance the Mariel port project built by Odebrecht.
The Lula Institute said that, by the time Lula visited Cuba in 2011, the loan for Mariel had been approved two years earlier in contracts “that no alleged lobbyist could alter.”
Lula, founder of the ruling Workers’ Party, said in a radio interview on Friday he could run again for the presidency in 2018 to prevent his opponents winning the elections.
While still an influential politician, Lula’s popularity has been hurt by the arrest on corruption charges of his former chief of staff and the treasurer of his party. Recent polls show the leftist leader would be defeated if he ran again.
The leader of a human rights group is concerned that the Cuban government will repeat its 2012 crackdown on opposition activists when Pope Francis visits the nation next month.
During Pope Benedict XVI’s visit three years ago, Cuban officials made arrests and took other actions to keep the dissidents from communicating with each other, said Berta Soler, leader of Women in White, a group of wives and other relatives of jailed Cuban dissidents.
“We’re really worried,” Soler told CNA last week. “When Pope Benedict XVI came to Cuba they shut down telephone lines in an area of some 15 to 25 miles. They did the same to the cell phones of human rights activists and their close relatives.”
She said the government put them under surveillance three days before Pope Benedict’s arrival.
“Cuban officials began arresting all the human rights activists so we couldn’t participate in the Masses the Pope celebrated in Santiago de Cuba and Havana.”
Pope Francis will visit Cuba Sept. 19-22.
“We’re waiting (to see what will happen), we’re thinking the same thing is going to happen when the Holy Father Pope Francis comes,” Soler said.
Nevertheless, she stated that Women in White as well as other human rights activists will try to go to the Masses because “we want to be close to the Holy Father.” She said they know that they’re going to be arrested.
Soler met with Pope Francis in Saint Peter’s Square in May 2013 and sent a letter to the pontiff through the nunciature and through friends. She asked the Pope: “When you come to Cuba could you listen to us even for a few minutes?”
The dissident leader reported arrests of the Women in White and other opposition activists on recent Sundays.
“We’ve been going out now (to march) for 18 Sundays and we can take it for granted that the Castro regime is going to come after the Women in White and the human rights activists on Sunday, Aug. 23rd… because we’re deep into our #TodosMarchamos (We’re all marching) campaign to free the political prisoners.”
She said that the Castro government is assembling “paramilitary mobs organized and financed by (the regime) to physically and verbally attack us.” National police and state security agents are also involved.
According to Soler, at present “there are about 80 political prisoners and 42 who are only technically released or on parole.” The latter 42 could be arrested again and sent back to prison without trial at any moment.
Pope Francis is due to visit Cuba in September – but group’s opposing the government have concerns
The leader of a human rights group has raised concerns that the Cuban government will repeat its crackdown on activists when Pope Francis visits next month.
In 2012 Cuban officials made arrests during Pope Benedict XVI’s visit, to keep dissidents from communicating with one another, according to the head of an opposition group.
Berta Soler is the leader of Women in White, a group of wives and other relatives of jailed Cuban dissidents.
“We’re really worried,” Soler told CNA. “When Pope Benedict XVI came to Cuba they shut down telephone lines in an area of some 15 to 25 miles.
“They did the same to the cell phones of human rights activists and their close relatives.”
Soler claims the government put them under surveillance three days before the former pope’s arrival.
“Cuban officials began arresting all the human rights activists so we couldn’t participate in the Masses the Pope celebrated in Santiago de Cuba and Havana,” she said.
Pope Francis is due to visit Cuba next month, from September 19th to 22nd.
“We’re waiting [to see what will happen]” Soler said. “We’re thinking the same thing is going to happen when the Holy Father Pope Francis comes.”
Solder said The Women in White as well as other human rights activists will try to go to the Masses because “we want to be close to the Holy Father.”
They aim to go, despite feeling they are going to be arrested.
Soler met with Pope Francis in Saint Peter’s Square in May 2013 and sent a letter to the pontiff through the nunciature and through friends.
Soler said she asked the Pope: “When you come to Cuba could you listen to us even for a few minutes?”
The dissident leader said there had already been arrests of The Women in White and other opposition activists recently.
The group has been going on marches for the past 18 Sundays.
She said that the Castro government is assembling “paramilitary mobs organized and financed by (the regime) to physically and verbally attack us.”
She thinks national police and state security agents are also involved.
According to Soler, “there are about 80 political prisoners and 42 who are only technically released or on parole.”
The latter 42 could be arrested again and sent back to prison without trial at any moment.
On Sunday August 16th more than 60 human rights activists along with some Women in White were restrained and arrested as they were marching after Mass at Saint Rita’s Church in Havana.
Then another 50 human rights activists and members of the Women in White were arrested in Havana on Sunday August 23 at at the protest march.
Speaking to the newspaper Martí News, Solder said excessive force was used in some arrests.
Those detained were released five hours later, while others were released at nightfall in uninhabited areas where Soler said there was risk of violence or assault.
Soler was also charged.
Artist Tania Bruguera spent eight months in Cuba after being detained just prior to the new year. She is now back in the U.S. after having her passport returned — but says she will return to Cuba in the future. (Tania Bruguera / #YoTambienExijo)
For months, the case of Tania Bruguera has been a protracted drama that has played itself out on the international stage. The artist — a Cuban national — was detained in Cuba just prior to the New Year, for attempting to stage a performance about freedom of expression in Havana’s Revolution Square. And while she was soon released, Bruguera had her passport confiscated, and was later detained on various other occasions. All of this was happening during a historic political moment — when the U.S. and Cuba were coming to a rapprochement.
Bruguera, who works primarily in the U.S. and Europe, is now back in the U.S. She landed in New York last Friday, after getting on a flight without previously alerting friends or family. Her return puts an end (for now) to an eight-month-long political and artistic drama that, for a time, appeared as if it might go on indefinitely.
The artist is currently in New Haven, Conn., participating in the Yale World Fellows program, where she will be working on a new project (yet to be determined) and participating in various activities at the university.
She took time to chat via Skype on Wednesday to discuss her whole Cuba experience. (“I am still digesting everything,” she said.) In our conversation, which has been edited for flow, the artist said she would return to Cuba. But first, there are a number of projects that will keep her in the U.S. for the time being — including one that will bring her to L.A. and the California Institute of the Arts.
You left Cuba very quietly. In fact, I understand that you only let friends and family know you were leaving once you were in the air. Why the secrecy?
I have been surveilled for eight months. At one point, I thought, “No, I’m being paranoid. Of course they don’t care about me anymore.” But in the meanwhile I suspected that someone very close to me was one of the informers. So I didn’t tell anybody that I was leaving. I did tell that person the night before. And then in the morning I did normal stuff, like I’m not leaving. I go to the house. I go here. I go there. And immediately in the morning, I have five people — friend and friends of friends — calling me saying, “When are you leaving?”
And I arrive at the airport and [a pair of Cuban state security officials], Javier and Andrea, arrive — literally, 10 minutes after I get to the airport. They couldn’t do anything because I was leaving. But [one of the officials] asks me what happened with this conference in Puerto Rico. It was this conference of dissidents. He says, “What did you hear?” I said, I didn’t know because I didn’t go.
He said to me, “Can you give me your number in the United States?” I said, “Thanks to you I don’t have a phone anymore because I lost my line.” And he said, “Can I have your address?” And I said, “Well, I lost my apartment too” — my apartment in Corona, Queens [in New York]. He said, “I might be there in September.”
It’s like until the last minute they want to mess with your head. They want to make you paranoid. At one point he said, “Someone close to you works for us.” I said, “You’re not going to make me a paranoiac. I’ve been here for eight months and I am not a paranoiac.” I understood they were watching me. But I would not let them make me a paranoiac. That’s what they do, they make you paranoid, they isolate you.
What did it feel like as your flight took off for New York last Friday?
The first thing I was like, there’s Internet! Free Internet. That really was almost a shock. It was very intense not to be able to communicate freely with anybody you trust. I made drawings of where all the public telephones were located. (While I was in Cuba, I started drawing again.) You could use a public phone, but only once, because then they would be monitoring. Or you’d have someone stand right next to you and they would [be listening in]. So I drew where all the phones were and which ones I used.
At one point, you said that you would not leave Cuba until you had a written guarantee from the government that they would let you back into the country. Were you able to get such a confirmation?
I didn’t get exactly what I asked for. But I did get a letter that says that they’ve closed the case. The lawyer I worked with said it was the first time they’d seen something like this. The thing is that [state security does] things and then there is no record. They ask you to sign papers, two copies of papers and then they keep both copies. You have nothing. So this is extremely good.
I also had my things returned. Everyone is very impressed they gave me my computer back. I’m going to use it as an artwork now. The one thing I learned is that [the Cuban government] gave a different meaning to my work. That’s fine. My work is about that. Setting the scene and seeing what happens. The government was the one who wanted to participate. I was fighting for the authorship of my piece with the government! [Laughs.]
From an interview by John Harwood of CNBC
HARWOOD: You’ve been very strong in saying it was disgraceful that the president re-established relations with Cuba. Does it give you any pause to know that the pope has a different view and was part of that opening?
RUBIO: No. The pope has a different job than I do. The pope’s job is to be the spiritual leader of the Catholic church, and to always call us to unity and brotherly love, and I understand that. And we all have that calling to some extent. But I’m a U.S. senator, and my job is to serve the national interests of the United States. I do not believe it is in the national interest of the United States to have a one-sided agreement with an anti-American, communist tyranny 90 miles from our shores.
I’m not against all changes to U.S. policy towards Cuba. I just think they need to be reciprocal. If we’re going to provide more travel to Cuba, the Cubans are going to have to make some changes on the island.
John Paul was fiercely anti-communist, very involved in his homeland of Poland. I want the Cuban people to have what the Polish people had, which is the opportunity to free themselves from the yoke of the tyranny that they live under. I don’t criticize what the pope is doing. I understand what his calling is. One of his things he’s trying to achieve is more space for the Catholic church in the island, to be able to carry out its mission of saving souls.
HARWOOD: Does it give you any pause to know that your parents left 60 years ago, and you’ve never set foot in Havana? Doesn’t that make you question the vehemence of your views?
RUBIO: No. Because I interact with people all the time that have just come from there, dissidents that come here and go back. I’m not operating in a vacuum, and I’m not operating out of things I read in a book. I’m dealing with people, I’m dealing with dissidents that come to the U.S. and speak to us about what’s happening. I have that benefit of that interaction combined with the benefit of understanding U.S. policy towards Cuba, and understanding the history behind it, and the nature of this regime.
Most Americans don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it. And most of the public policy leaders in our country don’t know a lot about the true nature of the Castro regime and what’s happening there. And what’s happening there is very simple: Raul Castro is transitioning that government eventually towards a succession that will involve his son as the leader of that country. What they’re looking for is enough revenue to allow that system of government they have in place to sustain itself for the long term. And this opening, this one-sided opening will make it easier for him to achieve that goal. And that means the Cuban people will never have freedom.
Rename 16th Street for a dissident who died under mysterious circumstances.
Raising the flag at the U.S. Embassy in Havana on Aug. 14 was a historically symbolic act, but equally symbolic were the absence of dissidents and the failure to talk about Cuba’s repressive regime at this public moment. The 45-minute ceremony illustrated everything that is wrong with Washington’s Cuba policy.
Americans and Cubans who have wanted for decades to hold the island’s dictatorship accountable for its human rights crimes absorbed a tough blow. But if the Obama administration won’t give them the right Cuba policy, Congress can award them an important and symbolic concession: Rub a reminder of the regime’s brutality in its face, every day, by renaming the street where its embassy stands in D.C. after one of its victims, the slain opposition leader Oswaldo Payá.
We all want a free, democratic and prosperous Cuba at peace with the United States. But this is not what Fidel and Raúl Castro want. Raul has made it clear that Cuba will remain under the control of the Communist Party and will not change the nature of the regime. As Josefina Vidal, director of U.S. affairs for the Cuban Foreign Ministry, put it: “Decisions on internal matters are not negotiable and will never be put on the negotiating agenda.” This is why the Cuban government refused to offer any meaningful political or economic reforms that might loosen its stranglehold on power, such as democratic elections or the release of all prisoners of conscience.
Despite good intentions, the U.S. policy shift morally and financially bolsters the Communist Party and disheartens people — both here and in Cuba — who have fought for freedom and prosperity. America’s recognition of the Castro regime legitimizes the party’s rule and makes continuity of party control more, not less, likely after Raul’s retirement or death. Victims of the Castro regime feel they have lost their staunchest ally, the United States. During an audience with Congress, dissident Jorge Luis Garcia Pérez — commonly known as Antúnez — said the majority of Cuba’s dissidents consider the negotiations between Washington and Havana a betrayal that threatens Cuban people’s aspirations for freedom.
Deteriorating conditions in Venezuela are causing increasing numbers of Cuban medical personnel working there to immigrate to the United States under a special US program launched in 2006 that expedites their applications.
For geographical reasons, neighboring Colombia is a favored gateway for Cubans fleeing Venezuela, who’s a populist government, is struggling to rein-in runaway inflation, widespread shortages of goods and services and rising social unrest.
On Saturday, the exodus reached critical mass when about 100 Cuban doctors, who deserted a medical mission in Venezuela and have been stranded in Colombia for months awaiting entry into the US, staged a protest to draw attention to their plight.
Brandishing their diplomas, the Cuban health professionals congregated in a plaza in Kennedy, a working-class neighborhood built in the 1960s with funds from John F. Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress.
Several described how punishing working conditions and widespread shortages of food and basic necessities, compounded by meager pay and mistreatment in Venezuela is leading many to sneak across the border seeking a new start in the United States.
While they say conditions in Colombia are better than Venezuela, the cost of living is higher, and many say they have had to borrow money from strangers and have been surviving on a single meal a day.
Apparently health care professionals say they fear the delays in processing their visa requests under the 2006 program could be a sign that President Barack Obama is seeking to end the incentive as part of his campaign to normalize relations with the communist island.
The 2006 US program was designed to lure Cuba’s medical talent and deprive President Raul Castro’s family government of an important source of foreign revenue.
Cuba has not made public how much it pays doctors on foreign missions, though it is believed to be a small fraction of what it collects from the nations where they serve.
Cuba, which prides itself on a comprehensive healthcare system and has long exported doctors and nurses to friendly states, currently has more than 50,000 healthcare professionals in some 66 nations as part of the international outreach program dating back to the 1960s.
The majority, thought to number about 10,000 persons, work in Venezuela, which sends Cuba some 92,000 barrels of oil a day worth about US$3.2 billion a year in exchange.
In Colombia, authorities said that 117 Cuban doctors are currently in the country processing visa requests with the United States. A total of 720 have arrived this year so far, although 603 have been deported because they exceeded the 90-day safe-conduct granted by Colombia in order to solicit a US visa.
State Department spokesman John Kirby said last week that while Cubans regularly voice their concerns about the program, it’s not part of bilateral talks taking place between the two governments and there are no plans to eliminate it.
“It is not at all related to our new policy with respect to Cuba,” he said. “There’s no tie, no connection”.
Opponents of the Obama administration’s effort to normalize relations with Cuba and some ethics watchdogs are questioning the lack of transparency behind a million-dollar advocacy campaign that pushed for the historic thaw.
Two articles — one that was published in the September/October issue of Mother Jones, and another in the January edition of The Nation — detail the back-channel negotiations and behind-the-scenes lobbying campaign leading up to President Obama’s December rapprochement to change five decades of U.S. policy and renew ties with the island nation.
Both reports also give a Denver-based progressive government relations firm, the Trimpa Group, credit for an elaborate behind-the-scenes lobbying campaign that helped press the administration into action on Cuba.
But there are no lobbying disclosure records on Congress’s searchable database on the Trimpa Group’s Cuba campaign, according to a Washington Examiner review of the files.
For two years leading up to the Obama administration’s rapprochement with Cuba, opponents of the policy heard rumors of various lobbying and public advocacy campaigns taking place on the issue, but could never track the funds or identify who was orchestrating it.
“All we want is a level playing field,” said Jason Poblete, a lawyer and registered lobbyist representing 10 American families pressing the Obama administration to recover billions of dollars in seized assets the Castro regime took after the country’s 1959 revolution.
“Americans who were injured by the communist regime in Cuba deserve justice,” he said. “The U.S. government and elected leaders need to speak for them and defend their interests.”
Several ethics watchdogs interviewed for this article say lobbying disclosure is based on self-reporting, and there are so many loopholes and so little enforcement that it’s difficult if nearly impossible to tell if firms are breaking the spirit or the letter of the disclosure law.
Meredith McGehee, policy director of the Campaign Legal Center, said it’s conceivable that the Trimpa Group did nothing legally wrong in failing to file lobbying disclosure reports. But she also said that doesn’t make it right.