Monthly Archives: November 2017

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


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.”

Cuban Exiles Recount ‘Sonic’ Torture by Castro Regime

The Daily Signal

A group of Cuban exiles and former political prisoners gathered on Capitol Hill Wednesday to recount human rights abuses that they and their relatives suffered at the hands of the Fidel Castro regime.
In a hearing organized by Freedom House and the Justice Cuba International Commission, survivors told gripping stories about friends and family who were imprisoned, tortured, and killed for resisting communist rule in Havana.
The tales of two former political prisoners stood out among the heart-wrenching accounts of abuses, if only for their parallels to the strange, unexplained sonic attacks inflicted upon U.S. diplomats in Havana last year. Ernesto Diaz Rodriguez and Luis Zuniga, anti-Castro dissidents who were sent to hideous regime prisons, said they were repeatedly subjected to “ultra-sonic” torture over more than 20 years in confinement.
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“The methodology consisted of placing large loudspeakers around 4 feet high each … at both ends of the hallway of cells,” Zuniga recalled of his experience in 1979. “Then, they were connected to some sort of electronic device that produced high-pitched sounds.”
“The sounds oscillated from high pitch to very high pitch that almost pieced the eardrums,” he added.
Zuniga went on to describe symptoms from the torture sessions, saying that he began to feel “increasingly uneasy” and “unable to think.” Other prisoners suffered debilitating headaches. The brutal punishment lasted for days, he recalled, leading to the suicide of a fellow inmate.
“This torture was kept [up] for days and nights without a respite,” Zuniga said. “It ended when one of the prisoners … hung himself. He died from the torture.”
For the former prisoners and exiles gathered at Wednesday’s hearing, the memories of audio torture were made fresh this summer, when it was revealed that American diplomatic personnel had been subjected to similar treatment over the previous year. What the State Department described as “sonic attacks” may have occurred in diplomatic residences and hotels in Havana—not in the regime’s dank prisons—but many of the physical and mental effects were eerily similar to those described by Zuniga.
Victims of the mysterious attacks, which began in late 2016 and continued through this summer, experienced disturbing symptoms, including permanent hearing damage, memory loss, and impaired cognitive function. In several cases, the affected officials reported hearing noises similar to loud crickets and then experiencing physical distress.
Last month, the Associated Press obtained and released an audio recording of the noise that U.S. intelligence officials believe was used in some of the incidents. Like the sound described by the Cuban political prisoners, the noise heard by American diplomatic personnel was a high-pitched whine that modulated in intensity and tone.
The U.S. has not directly accused the Castro regime of carrying out the attacks. Investigators are looking into the possibility that Cuban intelligence, perhaps a rogue element of spies, orchestrated the provocations in order to derail the normalization of diplomatic relations begun under the Obama administration, reports Politico.
Whoever is to blame, the episode has certainly soured relations between Washington and Havana. In a series of diplomatic reprisals, the State Department reduced the size of its Cuban mission, ordered Havana to withdraw several of its own diplomats, and issued a special warning advising Americans to avoid travel to Cuba until further notice.
Those moves were a prelude to new travel and trade restrictions President Donald Trump implemented earlier this month, halting and reversing the bilateral rapprochement initiated by his predecessor. Trump, who came into office highly critical of the Obama administration’s opening to Cuba, has made good on his promise to take a tougher stance toward the Castro regime.
Trump’s position was met with unanimous approval among the exiles, their relatives, and Cuban-American politicians assembled at the Justice Cuba event. Rene Bolio, Justice Cuba’s chairman, told attendees that human rights abuses in Cuba did not end with Fidel Castro’s death and the succession of his brother, Raul Castro.
“It’s not a thing from the past,” he said.
Rep. Mario Diaz Balart, R-Fla., one of the most ardent Cuba hawks in Congress, concluded the event with praise for the Trump administration’s hard line on Castro—and a swipe at President Barack Obama’s approach.
“I am exceedingly grateful that the policy of the last number of years, of trying to legitimize the corrupt, murderous [Castro] regime, of the visual of the president of the United States doing the wave at a baseball game with a tyrant—those days are over,” Diaz said.

Amid growing isolation, North Korea falls back on close ties with Cuba

The Washington Post

In the midst of increasing international isolation, North Korea is sending its foreign minister to an old ally: Cuba. In a short message released Friday, North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency announced that Ri Yong Ho and his delegation departed on their journey to Havana.
The move comes after a number of North Korean trading partners announced that they would be suspending trade with North Korea. Pyongyang’s seventh-largest trading partner, Singapore, announced that it would halt its trade ties with the country Thursday. In September, the Philippines — North Korea’s fifth-largest trading partner — said it would do the same.
In purely economic terms, Cuba is probably of negligible importance to North Korea compared to these nations: Official figures show that Havana fails to crack the top 10 trading partners, and it certainly falls far behind China, North Korea’s most important economic ally.
However, at this point, Pyongyang may be hoping to shore up international partners wherever it can.
“Looking at the vast number of countries that have announced severed ties with North Korea over the past few weeks, it makes a great deal of sense for the regime to attempt to reinforce the bonds that exist in whatever ways possible,” said Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein, an associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and co-editor of North Korean Economy Watch, in an email.
Notably, the move also comes at a time of increasing tension between Cuba and the United States following the Obama administration attempt at normalization of relations with Havana from 2014 onward. “Considering that the country’s own detente with the U.S. appears to have stalled,” Katzeff Silberstein said, referring to Cuba, “North Korea might (reasonably) see some particular momentum.”
For Havana and Pyongyang, warm relations are nothing new. Cuba and North Korea came to be allies during the early days of the Cold War — Che Guevara, the Argentine Marxist revolutionary who played a key role in Cuba’s revolution, visited North Korea in 1960 and praised Kim Il Sung’s regime as a model for Cuba to follow. Even after the Cold War ended, the two nations, now both isolated internationally, kept up their ties: Cuba also remains one of the few countries in the world to not have diplomatic relations with South Korea, for example.

The two nations were willing to flout sanctions to work together economically. In July 2013, a North Korea-flagged vessel was seized by Panamanian authorities carrying suspected missile-system components hidden under bags of sugar upon its return from Cuba. A report released the following year by a United Nations panel of experts concluded that the shipment had violated sanctions placed on North Korea, although Cuban entities were not sanctioned in the aftermath despite protests from the United States.
Crucially, the thawing of ties with Washington didn’t seem to significantly damage the relationship: In December 2016, a North Korean delegation to the funeral of Cuban leader Fidel Castro emphasized that the two nations should develop their relations “in all spheres” — a comment that was echoed by Raúl Castro, according to state media reports at the time.
Since President Trump took office in January, there have been signs that the thaw with Cuba is over. Earlier this month, the Trump administration announced strict new restrictions on U.S. travel and trade with Cuba, a move that largely followed through on Trump’s campaign promise to “terminate” the Obama-era normalization with Cuba.


US takes steps to make it harder for Americans to visit Cuba


he Trump administration is imposing travel and commerce restrictions on Cuba.
The prior administration pursued a thawing of relations with the island nation.
Americans wanting to visit Cuba will have to go as part of organized tour groups run by U.S. companies under the new rules.
The Trump administration is imposing travel and commerce restrictions on Cuba that will make it harder for Americans to visit the island nation.
New rules are coming out Wednesday that put in place President Donald Trump’s partial rollback of the Obama administration’s diplomatic opening with Cuba.
Americans wanting to visit Cuba will have to go as part of organized tour groups run by U.S. companies. A representative of the sponsoring group must accompany the travelers. The Treasury Department is exempting trips booked before Trump announced his Cuba policy on June 16.
The State Department is also publishing a list of dozens of hotels, shops and other businesses that it says are linked to Cuba’s military. Americans are banned from doing business with them — making travel even more complicated.