Monthly Archives: May 2016

U.S. diplomat recommends caution in Cuba talks


The Miami Herald

Assistant Secretary of State for Narcotics and Law Enforcement said the United States should be “very careful” in stepping up cooperation with Cuban security agencies.

Assistant Secretary of State William W. Brownfield, who heads the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, has recommends caution in talks with Cuba on law enforcement issues, saying they should not get ahead of the broader bilateral negotiations.

“The point of this is to do it very, very carefully. The two governments have to conclude that there’s value for them in taking this road and taking additional steps,” Brownfield said during a visit to Miami on Monday. “There will be times when this will make sense to both, and other times when it will make sense to only one of them.”

The diplomat said there is “a new reality” because the two sides at least are talking about the issues, “in contrast to what was happening two years ago. But we can’t forget that there were reasons behind the more than 50 years of bad relations between the two governments, and those issues will have to be addressed along the way.”

The diplomat said there is “a new reality” because the two sides at least are talking about the issues, “in contrast to what was happening two years ago. But we can’t forget that there were reasons behind the more than 50 years of bad relations between the two governments, and those issues will have to be addressed along the way.”

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Venezuela Has Become a Starvation State


The Daily Beast

Behold the fruits of chavismo: children going hungry.

Nicolás Maduro never looks too sure of what he’s saying. For a man who’s been accused of enforcing authoritarian rule over Venezuela, there’s no resolve in his speeches. It’s odd. Just before he starts a statement you notice a small pause and a mumble, a hesitation, as if he was debating with the voices in his head. It doesn’t matter whether he’s speaking from a colonial press conference room in the Government Palace of Miraflores or, as he did last weekend during a nationwide military exercise, surrounded by men in uniform, holding their rifles high above their heads, chanting oaths of loyalty to the revolution.

How could Maduro not second guess his speeches, when every second that passes chavismo misses an opportunity to fix the economic mess that has brought Venezuela to a deadly standstill? Bears the question: why wouldn’t he just go ahead and fix the mess?

Hugo Chávez has been dead for more than three years, and the results of his irresponsible fiscal policies and criminally despotic rule have finally come to light in the form of pain and misery.

Images of Hospitals that look like catacombs, and prisons that have become maximum security business centers for criminals where no law applies, have become a reference when speaking about the country. But the wound goes much deeper than that.

We’re not just talking about shortages of basic staples such as toilet paper and soap, or daily electricity cuts, the five-day weekends for public employees, or about any of those stories that have turned Venezuela into a punchline with a seat at the United Nations Human Rights Council. No. The economic collapse at the hands of chavista economic policies has brought something deadlier, and so much simpler: hunger.

Children who eat once or twice a day, who don’t go to school because they don’t have the energy. Families of four sharing a portion for one person. These stories have become as common as social media posts from people hunting for medicine to tend the ailments of their loved ones. This is the new kind of misery porn that has been drawing attention to Venezuela. A country that squandered close to a Trillion Dollars of oil revenue under chavista rule. Try to wrap your head around that sum for a sec. And now try to refocus on the country that today drowns in a humanitarian crisis. It’s as if the rate of the fall is proportional to the income received and wasted.

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What Obama still doesn’t get about Communism


New York Post

President Obama, standing in front of the American and Communist flags, announced in Hanoi this week that he’s ending the embargo that has for 50 years blocked US arms sales to Vietnam. The move, he said, would end a “lingering vestige of the Cold War.”

Between North Korea, Red China, Cuba and Vietnam, it’s a bit of a trick telling one lingering vestige from another. How about the lingering vestige of the Communist Party? When are we going to end that?

It’s not my intention here to re-litigate the Vietnam War. (In my opinion, history will vindicate the hawks and go hard on the Congress, where America’s hard-earned battlefield victory was given away in pursuit of an illusory peace.)

Yet it’s just bizarre that Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry seem to think that our embargo was more of a problem than the Communism itself. Even if Red China is itching for a war in the South China Sea.

Arms to Vietnam have a certain logic. It’s like Winston Churchill saying, when the Nazis entered Stalin’s Russia, that if Hitler invaded Hell he’d at least make a favorable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons.

In Southeast Asia the theory is that the Communists in China are more of a threat to American interests than the Communists in Vietnam, China’s traditional foe. Yet Obama is denying that the end of the arms embargo is linked to China.

It was, he insisted, based on “our desire to complete what has been a lengthy process of moving towards normalization with Vietnam.” But he has brushed aside all sorts of red flags about the nature of the regime.

Human Rights Watch sent him a letter nearly a month ago, warning of what he was dealing with in Vietnam’s Communist camarilla. It called Vietnam’s government “one of the most repressive in the world.”

It noted that expression, association and assembly are “extremely limited,” that the press is controlled and censored and that the Communist Party “controls all public institutions and uses them to maintain its hold on power.”

Human Rights Watch characterized the elections in Vietnam as “a form of political theater.” The president with whom Obama has been treating, Tran Dai Quang, it noted, is the thug who headed Vietnam’s “notorious Ministry of Public Security.”

In Hanoi this week, Obama insisted that any arms deals would have to meet the usual requirements, including human rights. But who believes him after the hash he made of the Iranian appeasement?

Obama doesn’t seem to grasp that the Communism is the human-rights violation. Speaking to students in Argentina two months ago, he brushed off the distinction between capitalism and Communism as “interesting intellectual arguments.”

“Just choose from what works,” Obama said. It was one of the most ridiculous comments of his presidency, given that if the century since the Bolshevik revolution has taught us anything, it’s that we know which one works.

Even the Communists know. They just don’t know — or care — what makes capitalism work. That’s the comprehension that liberty and prosperity are linked. There’s no difference between economic and political freedom.

Oh, there were fine words when Quang and Obama made their toasts in Hanoi. The Vietnamese president quoted the appeal to President Harry Truman from the father of Vietnam’s Communist revolution, Ho Chi Minh.

Ho appealed for American support for independence. America refused in part because he was without standing. He had long since become a Communist agent. He had never stood before his people in an election.

The leaders who have done that are to be found in, say, South Korea and the free Chinese republic of Taiwan.

They have built prosperous countries, where political parties contend, newspapers cover them and people can worship God. And come and go.

No doubt China is the bigger strategic threat, but it would be ironic if we arm Vietnam and it goes into a fight with the Chinese. American rockets could be falling on Chinese Communists instead of Chicom rockets falling on Americans.

Then again, our selling arms to Vietnam could well result in the Communist regime there using them against the Vietnamese people, including those in the South to whom we once supplied arms — and gave 58,209 American lives — to secure their lingering vestige of liberty.

Families of Cuban Migrants Desperate For Answers


CBS Miami

A Coast Guard Cutter remains at sea Monday, where it’s been since Friday with 21 Cuban migrants on board.

Many of the South Floridians who believe their loved ones are on that Coast Guard vessel have turned to the attorneys at the Democracy Movement for help.

They not only want to ensure those on board will not be sent back to Cuba, they also simply want verification that their relatives survived the journey and are with the Coast Guard.

“It’s so sad because you don’t know about him, nobody can tell you anything. And they know what happened with the people,” said Hildanys Rodriguez through tears. She became emotional when talking with CBS4’s Natalia Zea about the possible worst case scenario, involving her cousin Francis Alejo.

She knows he left Cuba on a homemade boat with friends, and prays he is one of the migrants picked up five miles off of Marathon Key Friday but at this point the Coast Guard is not naming names.

“Nobody wants to give information, please I ask if somebody can help,” said Rodriguez.

Compounding Rodriguez’s fear is the knowledge that relatives in South Florida have given the Democracy Movement 38 names of those believed to have left Cuba at the same time. But the Coast Guard found only 21.

Two were found in the water near the American Shoal Lighthouse. Nineteen others made it to the lighthouse itself.

“We’re talking about persons. It’s so really hard. It’s so hard to not know what happened to your family,” said Rodriguez.

Yamilia Carril also hopes her nephew Carlos Barrios was one of the 19 migrants who swam to the federally-owned lighthouse, and are awaiting word from the federal government, whether this counts as U.S. land, under the Wet-Foot, Dry-Foot policy.

“I’m very nervous with my nephew,” she told Zea.

Cuban exile activist Ramon Saul Sanchez says the lighthouse is clearly part of the United States.

“The lighthouse is anchored in the platform of U.S. territory. It is in U.S. waters,” said Sanchez.

Continue reading Families of Cuban Migrants Desperate For Answers

Families who fled not thrilled with renewed US-Cuba relations



Not everyone is ready to paint a rosy picture when it comes to renewed US – Cuba relations.

Images of President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro are drawing a mixed reaction from families who fled the communist regime years ago.

Isabel Espino, 54, was born in Cuba and left with her family when she was 18. Her father was a pharmaceutical salesman, and she was preparing to go to college when the Cuban government confronted the family about their Catholic beliefs. Practicing religion was forbidden under Castro’s revolution.

Her father was forced to take a government job, and the family was no longer allowed to go to church.

“If you deny people freedom of speech, if you deny people freedom of religion, that’s not OK,” she said.

Espino still finds it difficult to talk negatively about the Cuban government, because she fears repercussion.

“It still scares me,” she said. “It’s not a ‘touristy’ destination for me.”
Since her family fled the country, Espino has not returned.

Now that the U.S. is opening up with Cuba, and diplomatic relations are improving, she and many others are not yet ready to forgive the government that drove them away from her homeland.

“This all happened at a point where the Cuban government was floundering badly, which is what we were all been waiting for 50 some years,” she said. “You can ask someone else for their side of the story. But this is my side.”

Venezuela: Trouble on the streets


The Economist

The country is poised between chaos and dictatorship

“THIS government is going to fall!” chanted hundreds of protesters alongside the Avenida Libertador in central Caracas. Staring them down were ranks of security forces—from the police, the national guard and the feared, black-uniformed SEBIN (secret police)—charged with making sure that does not happen. Looming above was a huge grinning portrait of the late president, Hugo Chávez.

The protesters’ aim on May 18th was, as it has been on two previous occasions this month, to march to the offices of the National Electoral Council (CNE). The supposedly independent, but nakedly biased, institution has been delaying its consideration of a petition it was handed weeks ago, the first stage of a process to recall Venezuela’s president, Nicolás Maduro, through a referendum. With government forces blocking all routes to the CNE, the protesters were never likely to get close.

The regime may feel the day was a success. The protests were not huge. The poor have yet to stream down from the barrios en masse to demand the president’s ouster. But they are enraged and the government is worried. Almost 70% of Venezuelans want Mr Maduro to leave office this year, according to a recent poll. That demand is fuelled by the appalling deterioration of living standards under his incompetent rule. Venezuela is suffering the world’s deepest recession. Self-defeating price and currency controls and rampant corruption are causing shortages of everything from medicines to rice. “I am here because I am sick of queuing from dawn,” said José Galeano, a protester who describes himself as a poor man. “This has to end.”

Across Venezuela, small protests are now commonplace. Social media are awash with videos of shoppers plundering supermarkets and brawling with each other. As crime soars, the lynching of petty criminals is becoming more common.

The desperation such incidents reveal is dismissed by the increasingly delusional Mr Maduro during his endless television appearances. The shortages, he says, are the consequence of an “economic war” waged by enemies at home and abroad. Some in Caracas joke that he must be the only man who can claim to fight a fictional war, and then lose it. But they fear the direction his rule might now take.

After the May 18th protests he threatened to supersede the current economic state of emergency (announced five days earlier) with a “state of internal commotion”. Whereas the first gives him powers such as instructing the army to supervise the production and distribution of food, the second would give him the ability to impose something closer to military rule across the country.

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Lawmakers accuse Homeland Security of doublespeak on Cuba flight risks



Piling security concerns atop their political complaints, House Republicans say initiating commercial air service from Cuba is a disaster waiting to happen, and accused the Obama administration of fast-walking flights to shore up the president’s legacy.

Obama administration officials publicly insist TSA has thoroughly scrutinized the 10 Cuban airports where flights may soon begin, ensuring that they meet the highest security rules laid out by the International Civil Aviation Organization, a U.N. body.

But Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.) says administration officials have told a different story behind closed doors, including warnings about outdated screening equipment, “mangy street dogs” on canine teams and insufficient vetting practices for aviation workers.

“The administration’s lack of transparency on this issue is unacceptable and leads me to believe that the administration is either hiding something, or worse: simply negligent of the security concerns associated with this policy,” Katko said during a House Homeland Security hearing Tuesday. “The picture officials of TSA paint of the security situation at Cuba’s airports is indeed bleak.”

The congressman, who serves as head of the House Homeland Security subcommittee that handles transportation issues, pressed TSA witness Larry Mizell to reiterate worries he expressed privately. But Mizell declined to publicly elaborate, saying the information was classified as sensitive and that his opinion of Cuba’s aviation security procedures has improved over time.

“The concerns I had that I shared with you was over a five-year period. Certainly I had concerns at the beginning which I don’t have now,” Mizell said. “Right now, the government of Cuba airports that have been assessed and inspected by the inspectors meet ICAO standards.”

Mizell would not say, though, whether he personally believes security is sufficient at Cuban airports.

“The concerns I have are very minor compared to what we were looking at five years ago,” he said.

Katko said that it was only under threat of subpoena that the Homeland Security Department would allow Mizell to appear before the committee.

“Even then,” the congressman said in a statement after the hearing, “the administration failed to allow the witness to openly testify about security concerns that he had previously stated to the committee.”

Katko claims bomb-sniffing dogs at Cuban airports are “poorly trained at best,” that there is no equipment for detecting trace explosives and that only one of the airports in question uses full body scanners.

To boot, “these scanners are Chinese-made,” he said. “We have no idea whether they work at all, or how they work, or how well they work.”

House Homeland Security Chairman Mike McCaul (R-Texas) said the administration’s plans to open commercial air service to and from Cuba are being “unnecessarily rushed.” The Department of Transportation is evaluating which airlines will receive service to which airports, a process that is expected to be completed in time to inaugurate service in fall.

“There are serious security concerns here that seem to be taking a backseat to a legacy-building effort,” McCaul said. “So far I remain entirely unconvinced the administration has done its due diligence. While the Obama administration may be willing to put the security of Americans at risk to appease a dictator … the United States Congress will not.”

Once commercial service begins, TSA will continue to inspect the security of flights out of Cuba and has the power to suspend service entirely or force emergency security measures, Seth Stodder, a DHS assistant secretary, told the panel.

Besides working to finalize an agreement with Cuba for the use of Federal Air Marshals, Stodder said DHS runs passenger information through the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Database; foreign nationals are only allowed to fly to the United States if they have valid visas or permission through the Visa Waiver Program.

“All of the security and enforcement requirements in place for international flights to the United States will be applied with equal force to Cuba flights,” Stodder said. “Indeed, these measures are already in place with regard to the charter flights that have for many years offered service between our two countries.”

Paul Fujimura, assistant administrator for the Office of Global Strategies within DHS, said TSA’s team of about 150 international inspectors uses a standardized assessment to size up aviation security at all airports with direct flights to the United States.

“They follow a very clearly articulated job aid … it’s a very regulated process that we operate around the world,” he said. “I would be very comfortable flying from Cuba myself. They meet international standards.

Angry streets, not recall, may be Venezuela leader’s biggest risk

People shout while they queue to try to buy toilet paper and diapers outside a pharmacy in Caracas May 16, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
People shout while they queue to try to buy toilet paper and diapers outside a pharmacy in Caracas May 16, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins


Streaming down from hilltop slums in the dead of night, hundreds of Venezuelans join an ever-growing line that circles the vast “Bicentennial” state-run supermarket.

By sunrise, there are several thousand, closely watched by National Guard soldiers, all waiting for the chance to buy coveted rice, flour or chicken at subsidized prices amid crippling nationwide shortages and inflation.

Many of them used to be devoted supporters of Hugo Chavez, the late socialist president who brought his quirky brand of left-wing nationalism to the OPEC nation during a 1999-2013 presidency.

Now, in the grumbling of pre-dawn lines, there is disillusionment with Chavez’s “Beautiful Revolution” and undisguised anger at his successor and self-declared “son” Nicolas Maduro.

Word that no price-fixed food – only diapers, detergent and deodorant – would be on offer this particular morning spreads quickly, further deflating and frustrating the crowd.

The day before, when food ran out, there was a riot.

“This is unbearable,” says Wilson Fajardo, 56, a mechanic whose three children ate only bread for dinner the previous night. “We voted for Maduro because of a promise we made Chavez, but that promise has expired. Either they solve this problem, or we’re going to have to take to the streets.”

It is these people – who struggle to find food or medicine amid worsening shortages, see their income gobbled up by runaway inflation, and suffer near-daily water and power cuts – who are arguably a bigger problem for Maduro than his formal opponents.

For sure, the opposition coalition is organizing marches and trying to channel discontent into a drive for a recall referendum against the former union leader and bus driver.

Yet they are failing to attract large numbers to protests and Socialist Party officials say the referendum will not happen this year, confident the government-leaning electoral body will drag its feet on the complicated paperwork needed.

As institutional channels to remove Maduro close, anger is spilling over in other ways.

Small spontaneous demonstrations are picking up: about 17 per day around the nation, according to the Venezuelan Observatory for Social Conflict, a rights group. It says looting, too, is becoming more common, with 107 incidents in the first quarter.

In towns around the nation, it is becoming common for neighbors to block roads or gather near state utility offices to show their rage over power-cuts, food prices or lack of water. Videos of mobs breaking into shops, swarming onto trucks or fighting over products often make the rounds of social media.

Continue reading Angry streets, not recall, may be Venezuela leader’s biggest risk

Cuba’s oldest beer, La Tropical, brought back to life in Miami


The Miami Herald

Ramon Blanco Herrera carries his ghosts in a shiny, black tin box.

His liver-spotted hands carefully remove relics he never imagined would become so nostalgic for him when he was a boy in Cuba. A label from the original La Tropical beer. A certificate for stock in Cerveceria La Tropical brewery, signed by the president, his grandfather, in 1954. A picture of an ancestor’s statue standing over the expansive tropical beer gardens of the brewery his family founded in 1888, Cuba’s first.

“I never got to enjoy it. All the free beer I could have had…” jokes Blanco Herrera, 70, whose family saw their brewery — which produced upwards of 60 percent of Cuba’s beer — nationalized and his family exiled.

Manny Portuondo prefers to commune with his ghosts.

Portuondo, 49, the American-born son of Cuban exiles, visited Cuba for the first time last fall, including the sprawling tropical gardens and biergarten surrounding Cerveceria La Tropical, on the banks of the bubbling Almendares River. It was his great, great grandfather who developed and sold the land to the Blanco Herreras for the brewery more than 128 years ago.

“I stood there and I was in awe,” Portuondo said. “I felt that history in my blood, running through me. I came back after that trip and said to myself, ‘I’m going to bring that back.’ I want people to feel what I felt.”

Lovers of craft beer and all things Cuba will get that chance.

Portuondo worked with Wynwood’s Concrete Beach Brewery to re-create the original recipe and will release La Tropical at an event at the brewery on May 22. The event will cap American Craft Beer Week, which begins Monday with events around town.

The beer will be sold only at the brewery for now. But both Portuondo and Blanco Herrera, who own the world rights to the beer, and Concrete Beach, a subsidiary of the Boston Beer Company (Samuel Adams), have their sights set on widespread distribution.

Brewers scrubbed the copper-plated brewing tanks at Concrete Beach on Monday as Portuondo and Blanco Herrera awaited their first taste of the finished beer, a malty Vienna-style lager that research told them is how the original beer would have been brewed.

In the other room awaited a beer their families had come together to create more than 128 years ago. This day has been nearly two decades coming.

Continue reading Cuba’s oldest beer, La Tropical, brought back to life in Miami

What Dilma Rouseff’s Fall Means For Cuba



Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s suspension from office is bad news for newly trendy Cuba, which despite a detente with Washington is feeling the pinch from a downturn ravaging allies’ economies and political fortunes in South America and Africa.

Friends such as Venezuela, Brazil and Angola for years used revenue from a commodities boom to pay for Cuban medical and educational services, turning it into the communist-run island’s main source of hard currency.

President Raul Castro’s detente with the United States has helped drive up tourism to record highs but income from the influx of foreign visitors were only about one-third of the $7 billion from health and education exports in 2014.

Over the last 13 years, Brazil’s leftist governments also provided at least $1.75 billion in credit on favorable terms, drawing fire from opponents who are also angered by a program that put 11,400 Cuban doctors to work in Brazil.

Those projects will now be re-examined after Brazil’s Senate voted on Thursday to put Rousseffon trial for breaking budget laws. She is now suspended from office while the trial takes place in coming months, and a likely conviction would end her presidency.

“There will be a short-term review of our Cuba policy, because the money has run out and because there are some serious governance questions regarding the loans. Everything will be put on hold,” said a Brazilian diplomat who served in Havana.

Some of Brazil’s loans bankrolled a major expansion project at Cuba’s Mariel port with 25-year repayment periods and rates of between 4.4 percent to 6.9 percent, Brazilian data shows. Critics say the terms are too generous given Cuba’s poor credit history.

Support from a bloc of leftist governments in Latin America since the turn of the century helped Cuba get back on its feet after the collapse of the Soviet Union caused a massive economic crisis in the 1990s. Improving relations with the United States and Europe hold the promise of new revenue, but for now Cuba’s economy will suffer as the tide turns against allies.

Centrist politician Michel Temer took over as interim president in Brazil on Thursday. His government is not expected to send home the Cuban doctors working in Brazil since 2013-14 but it will not hire any more.

“Obviously there will be no more Cuban doctors coming here in the future, because this model of assistance is questionable and there won’t be support for it, but I doubt any Cubans doctors will be booted out,” said the diplomat, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak on the matter.

Continue reading What Dilma Rouseff’s Fall Means For Cuba