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 on: Dec 18, 2014, 08:51 AM 
Started by Rose Marcus - Last post by Rad
Pope Francis praises US and Cuba for normalizing diplomatic relations

17 Dec 2014 at 13:14 ET       

Pope Francis on Wednesday congratulated the United States and Cuba on their decision to establish diplomatic relations, and the Vatican said it was ready to support the strengthening of bilateral relations.

In a statement, the Vatican also confirmed that its diplomats facilitated talks between the two countries, “resulting in solutions acceptable to both parties.”

“The Holy Father wishes to express his warm congratulations for the historic decision taken by the governments of the United States of America and Cuba to establish diplomatic relations, with the aim of overcoming, in the interest of the citizens of both countries, the difficulties which have marked their recent history,” the statement said.

It said the pope had written letters to Cuban President Raul Castro and U.S. President Barack Obama “and invited them to resolve humanitarian questions of common interest including the situation of certain prisoners, in order to initiate a new phase in relations between the two parties.”

The statement confirmed that Vatican diplomacy was used “to facilitate a constructive dialogue on delicate matters, resulting in solutions acceptable to both parties.”

It added that “The Holy See will continue to assure its support for initiatives which both nations will undertake to strengthen their bilateral relations and promote the wellbeing of their respective citizens.”


Pope Francis played key role in Cuba normalization talks: US

Agence France-Presse
17 Dec 2014 at 11:59 ET

Pope Francis played a vital role in bringing Cuba and the United States to the negotiating table, making a “personal appeal” to the nations’ leaders, a US official said Wednesday.

The pontiff “sent that letter directly to President (Barack) Obama, and separately he communicated through a letter directly to President (Raul) Castro early this summer,” a move that gave “greater impetus and momentum” in the process to normalize relations, the senior administration official said.

 on: Dec 18, 2014, 08:45 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad

Journey to Reconciliation Visited Worlds of Presidents, Popes and Spies

DEC. 17, 2014

WASHINGTON — The deal that freed an American jailed in Cuba and ended 53 years of diplomatic estrangement between the United States and Cuba was blessed at the highest levels of the Holy See but cut in the shadowy netherworld of espionage.

A personal appeal from Pope Francis, American officials said, was critical in persuading Cuba’s president, Raúl Castro, to agree to a prisoner swap and the freeing of the American aid worker Alan P. Gross. The pope, officials said, acted as a “guarantor” that both sides would live up to the terms of a deal reached in secret.

The most tangible breakthrough, however, came almost a year into the talks, when the United States, at loggerheads with Cuba, proposed to swap three Cuban agents jailed in the United States for a Cuban working for American intelligence who had been held in a jail in Cuba for nearly 20 years.  

By introducing another figure to the talks — the kind of horse-trading that was standard in Cold War spy swaps — the White House was able to sidestep the appearance that it was trading Cuban spies directly for Mr. Gross. Cuba had sought a straight swap but the United States resisted, saying Mr. Gross had been wrongfully imprisoned.

All told, the negotiations to free Mr. Gross and reopen ties with Cuba took a year and a half. In nine meetings, held in Canada and the Vatican, a tiny circle of aides to Mr. Castro and President Obama hashed out the gritty details as well as grand questions of history.

Looming over their efforts was a mounting fear among the Americans that Mr. Gross’s health was deteriorating. Several months ago, Secretary of State John Kerry warned Cuba’s foreign minister, Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla, that if Mr. Gross died in captivity, all of the administration’s efforts to reopen relations with Cuba would be for naught.

Word of the talks was kept under extraordinarily tight wraps, but in March, Mr. Obama brought in an influential outsider. The president briefed Pope Francis, who was born in Argentina and is the first head of the Roman Catholic church from Latin America, in a one-on-one meeting over a spare desk adorned with a gold crucifix at the Vatican. Days later, the pope wrote letters to Mr. Obama and Mr. Castro, appealing to both to keep pushing for an agreement.

“You just cannot overstate the importance of this pope,” said a senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the negotiations. “This pope, coming from the region, has a resonance with leaders in the region, including Cuba.”

Obama’s First Move

The seeds of this week’s opening were laid soon after Mr. Obama took office in 2009, when he loosened restrictions on the ability of Cuban-Americans to visit relatives and send money to their families there. In April 2009, Mr. Obama told a gathering of Western Hemisphere leaders that the United States sought “a new beginning with Cuba.”

But the thaw quickly froze again in December 2009 when Mr. Gross, a contractor for the United States Agency for International Development, was arrested and accused of crimes against the Cuban state for bringing telecommunications equipment into the country. The State Department began a long, fruitless campaign for his release.

Hillary Rodham Clinton described her failure to win Mr. Gross’s freedom as one of her major regrets as secretary of state. But as she prepared to leave the State Department, she nevertheless wrote a memo to Mr. Obama urging him to reconsider the trade embargo against Cuba.

The president had been leaning in the same direction, officials said, and when he and his aides laid out their foreign-policy priorities for the second term, they put Cuba near the top. When the Cuban government loosened some restrictions on travel for its citizens, Mr. Obama decided the time was right to make a higher-level diplomatic overture.

To spearhead the effort, he chose two young aides: Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser and speechwriter, and Ricardo Zuniga, a Cuba expert of Honduran descent, who is the National Security Council’s senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs. Mr. Zuniga, who had worked at the American Interests Section in Havana, was recruited to the White House to help with such an effort, a senior official said, while Mr. Rhodes had been involved in the White House’s opening to Myanmar.

For months, the two men took commercial flights to Canada to meet with an only slightly larger delegation from Cuba, a senior official said. The meetings usually lasted a day but sometimes stretched to a second day.

A Canadian government official, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said Canada arranged locations in Toronto and in Ottawa for about seven meetings. Canada did not participate in the talks.

“I don’t want to exaggerate Canada’s role,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. “But look, I’m pleased the president acknowledged our role in this.”

What Cuba Wanted

In the early stages of the talks, officials said, it was not clear to the Americans what the Cuban government most wanted. Was it an end to American-sponsored pro-democracy programs? Did Cuba want to be taken off the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism? Or was it the release of the Cuban Five, five Cuban intelligence officers convicted of espionage and, in one case, murder?

The Cuban negotiators, for example, repeatedly objected to the American military prison at Guantánamo Bay.

In earlier negotiations, the Americans had played down Mr. Gross’s importance, calculating that this would increase the odds that the Cubans would release him after he was sentenced and had lost his appeal. Plus, after two of the Cuban Five were paroled, American officials hoped that the Cubans would release Mr. Gross on humanitarian grounds.

The first member of the Cuban Five, Rene González, was released in 2011 after serving 13 years of his sentence. He was required to serve three years of probation in the United States, but in 2013, a judge decided he could stay in Cuba after he went there for his father’s funeral if he renounced his United States citizenship. A second member of the Cuban Five, Fernando González, was released early in 2014 and was deported.

Yet the Cubans still would not release Mr. Gross. As the talks dragged on through 2013, it became clear to the American delegation that getting the remaining three members of the Cuban Five back was a top priority for the Cuban government — a point made clear in Mr. Castro’s statement on Wednesday, which hailed the prisoners as heroes.

At that point, the American side tabled the notion of a straight spy swap and proposed that the three remaining members of the Cuban Five be exchanged for a Cuban who had worked for American intelligence. It would be part of a broader move toward the normalization of relations in which Mr. Gross would be set free as a humanitarian gesture.

“When we raised this intelligence asset,” a senior official said, “that was not something the Cubans anticipated.”

American intelligence officials have said little about the Cuban agent, except that he was instrumental in exposing and disrupting a ring of Cuban operatives in the United States that included members of the Cuban Five. A senior American official identified him as Rolando Sarraf Trujillo. Multiple news accounts in recent years have identified Mr. Trujillo as a former Cuban intelligence officer who has been in prison in Cuba since 1995.

While Mr. Kerry was not involved in the secret channel in Canada, he played an important role in reinforcing the White House’s message. As the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Mr. Kerry had come to know Mr. Parrilla, Cuba’s foreign minister. That gave the United States another channel to deliver messages to the Cuban authorities.

In phone calls with Mr. Parrilla — Mr. Kerry held four of them last summer — he delivered a stark message: If any harm came to Mr. Gross, the entire deal would be off. Mr. Gross’s mother was in declining health, and the Americans were afraid if she died, his condition might deteriorate or he might even harm himself. After Evelyn Gross died last summer, Mr. Kerry sent him a handwritten letter urging him not to lose faith.

Excerpts from a speech by President Raúl Castro of Cuba, following the release of Alan P. Gross and the announcement of a restoration of full diplomatic relations with the United States.
Video by AP on Publish Date December 17, 2014. Photo by -/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images.

Mr. Kerry also reassured lawmakers on Capitol Hill, who were concerned that the administration was not doing enough to free Mr. Gross. At one meeting with his former Senate colleagues, he said, “Guys, trust me: We could have a backchannel cooking to bring Alan home and do something bold, and you wouldn’t know and you couldn’t know.”

Mr. Kerry cited similar secret negotiations between the United States and Iran held in the Persian Gulf state of Oman, which paved the way for an interim agreement on the Iranian nuclear program. Officials said Mr. Kerry viewed the opening to Cuba much like the opening to Vietnam, in which he played a role as a senator and a Vietnam veteran.

The Presidents Meet

Even as the two sides were talking, there was an impromptu meeting of Mr. Obama and Mr. Castro at the funeral of Nelson Mandela in December. The two men shook hands, though the White House said later that Mr. Obama had not raised Mr. Gross’s plight with Mr. Castro.

The Vatican’s role predated Pope Francis. One of his predecessors, Pope John Paul II, visited Cuba in 1998, and the church remains hugely influential among Cubans. The Obama administration first sought to enlist the Vatican’s support when Pope Benedict XVI was in office. It worked even more actively with the Vatican after Pope Francis came to the Vatican in 2013.

The pope’s new secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, an Italian, had served as papal nuncio in Venezuela and was well versed in Latin America politics. Mr. Kerry was also in contact with Cardinal Parolin, meeting him at the Vatican in June and again a week ago.

The Cuban government could not afford to ignore the church’s influence, and the Vatican used it, including to persuade the Cuban negotiations to go along with the idea of a prisoner swap.

“It was less a matter of breaking some substantive logjam but more the confidence of having an external party we could rely on,” said a senior official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the negotiations. “This was a very complicated piece of business.”

In October, as negotiations reached a critical phase, the Vatican hosted a meeting of American and Cuban negotiators, in which they sealed the final terms of the agreement. On Nov. 6, two days after the midterm elections, Mr. Obama convened a meeting of his National Security Council to sign off on the new policy.

Still, the two delegations met one more time in Canada to work out the logistical details of the swap. Those details were complicated: Representative Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat who was part of a delegation sent to pick up Mr. Gross in Havana, said their blue-and-white government plane was not allowed to take off for Washington until five minutes after the plane carrying the Cuban prisoners landed on Cuban soil.


Cuban President Castro praises Obama and new U.S. policy: ‘We need to learn to live together’

17 Dec 2014 at 21:45 ET    

Cuban President Raul Castro hailed a landmark exchange of prisoners with the United States on Wednesday and praised U.S. President Barack Obama as the two countries agreed to normalize relations after more than five decades of hostility.

The United States freed three convicted Cuban spies in return for the release of U.S. foreign aid worker Alan Gross, imprisoned in Cuba in 2009, and of an intelligence agent who spied for the United States and had been held for nearly 20 years.

“We need to learn to live together in a civilized way, with our differences,” Castro said in televised address that touched off jubilation in the streets of Havana, where the Cuban spies are considered heroes.

Castro, known for his low-key style, avoided triumphal statements in his televised address but said their release was a cause of “enormous joy for their families and all of our people.”

Two other agents had previously been released upon serving their sentences. Images of the “Cuban Five” cover billboards across the country, and the men are referred to as “anti-terrorist heroes” in official media for their work in spying on extremist Cuban exile groups in Florida.

In a rare nod to a sitting U.S. president, Castro praised Obama for agreeing to the prisoner exchange and pushing for a new relationship with Cuba.

“This decision by President Obama deserves respect and recognition by our people,” Castro said, speaking at the same time that Obama announced his administration would restore diplomatic relations.

Castro, 83, became Cuba’s president in 2008, taking over from his older brother Fidel Castro.

Since then, he has moved to encourage more private enterprise with modest economic reforms, although he has insisted the changes are aimed at strengthening communist rule.

He went to Havana’s international airport on Wednesday to receive the three Cuban intelligence agents released after serving 16 years in U.S. jails.

Cuban state television showed footage of the three exchanging hugs with Castro, relatives, friends and government officials.

Gerardo Hernandez, 49, the leader of the group, had been serving a double-life sentence for conspiracy to murder in connection with the Cuban air force’s shooting down of U.S. civilian aircraft in 1996.

The other two, Antonio Guerrero, 56, and Ramon Labañino, 51, had been due to be released in the coming years.

“General, we are still so emotional we don’t have the words, but what we have in excess is gratitude,” Hernandez told Castro, referring to him by his military rank.


‘Another Wall falls’: Europe hails US-Cuba breakthrough

18 Dec 2014 at 06:41 ET                  

Twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall reunited Europe, the European Union hailed a “historic turning point” in the Caribbean with the renewal of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States.

“Today another Wall has started to fall,” EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said in a statement. “These moves represent a victory of dialogue over confrontation.”

European governments, while critical of Cuban human rights abuses, have long urged Washington to follow them in improving relations with the communist-ruled island, especially since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of Cuba’s Soviet sponsor.

Mogherini said the EU, which lifted diplomatic sanctions on Cuba in 2008, favored dialogue. In April, it began negotiations on a cooperation agreement, although Cuba recently put off talks that were due to have discussed human rights.

“Human rights remain at the heart of EU policy towards Cuba,” said Mogherini, a former Italian foreign minister.

She also thanked Pope Francis for his “wisdom” in helping to mediate between Havana and Washington.


Pope Francis praises US and Cuba for normalizing diplomatic relations

17 Dec 2014 at 13:14 ET       

Pope Francis on Wednesday congratulated the United States and Cuba on their decision to establish diplomatic relations, and the Vatican said it was ready to support the strengthening of bilateral relations.

In a statement, the Vatican also confirmed that its diplomats facilitated talks between the two countries, “resulting in solutions acceptable to both parties.”

“The Holy Father wishes to express his warm congratulations for the historic decision taken by the governments of the United States of America and Cuba to establish diplomatic relations, with the aim of overcoming, in the interest of the citizens of both countries, the difficulties which have marked their recent history,” the statement said.

It said the pope had written letters to Cuban President Raul Castro and U.S. President Barack Obama “and invited them to resolve humanitarian questions of common interest including the situation of certain prisoners, in order to initiate a new phase in relations between the two parties.”

The statement confirmed that Vatican diplomacy was used “to facilitate a constructive dialogue on delicate matters, resulting in solutions acceptable to both parties.”

It added that “The Holy See will continue to assure its support for initiatives which both nations will undertake to strengthen their bilateral relations and promote the wellbeing of their respective citizens.”


Senator Marco Rubio pledges to block efforts to normalize Cuba relations

17 Dec 2014 at 11:54 ET          

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio said on Wednesday he would “make every effort” to block moves by President Barack Obama toward normalizing relations with the Cuban government.

“The president’s decision to reward the Castro regime and begin the path toward the normalization of relations with Cuba is inexplicable,” Rubio said in a statement.

The Florida Republican senator, who is Cuban-American, said he would use his role as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Western Hemisphere subcommittee in the new Congress to try to block the plan.

 on: Dec 18, 2014, 08:33 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
Colombian Rebels Call Unilateral Truce

DEC. 17, 2014

CARACAS, Venezuela — Colombia’s largest guerrilla group declared on Wednesday that it was about to begin an indefinite, unilateral cease-fire, in a challenge to the government to halt hostilities while the two sides continued negotiations toward an end to 50 years of war.

But the group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, said that it would call off the cease-fire if government forces attacked — a condition that appeared to give the gesture little chance of success, since the government has repeatedly rejected previous calls by the rebels to suspend hostilities while the two sides try to forge a permanent agreement.

The cease-fire was to go into effect on Saturday, the FARC said in a statement posted online. It added that it hoped to subsequently agree to a truce with the government.

The FARC has declared unilateral cease-fires at Christmastime for the past two years, as well as during presidential elections earlier this year.

But it has not previously said that it would refrain from hostilities for an unlimited period.

There was no immediate response from President Juan Manuel Santos or others in the government. Mr. Santos was re-elected this year on promises to conclude the peace negotiations that he started with a surprise announcement more than two years ago.

Camilo González, the director of the Institute for Development and Peace Studies in Bogotá, said the FARC’s move was positive, but added that it would be difficult for the government to agree to a truce because that would open it up to fierce criticism from right-wing opponents of the peace process.

“The government has been very insistent lately with its language of a military offensive,” Mr. González said.

Senator Fernando Nicolás Araujo, a member of the right-wing party of former President Álvaro Uribe, a fierce adversary of Mr. Santos’s peace efforts, said the FARC was trying to trick the government into accepting a bilateral cease-fire.

“Like always, the FARC wants to fool the country,” Mr. Araujo said. “We cannot accept a bilateral cease-fire. It is the capitulation of the rule of law in the face of terrorism.”

The FARC announcement came shortly after the peace talks had overcome their greatest obstacle so far, when the guerrillas last month captured an army general, Rubén Darío Alzate.

That led Mr. Santos to suspend the peace talks. Two weeks later, the FARC released General Alzate and two others seized with him, clearing the way for the talks to resume.

It also came two days after the government announced that it had killed nine FARC members in a military operation in the southeastern part of the country.

“In a negotiation, there are no gifts from either side,” said Carlos Eduardo Jaramillo, an adviser to government negotiators in a round of peace talks involving the FARC and another guerrilla group in the 1990s. “Every offer is poisoned. No one makes an offer out of pure altruism.”

He said that the “poison” in this case was the caveat that the cease-fire would end if the FARC came under assault.

“The chance of success depends on how the government interprets it and the actions it takes,” he said. “Maybe the government will say, ‘We will keep fighting, but we will decelerate the conflict.’ ”

 on: Dec 18, 2014, 08:30 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
U.S. to Restore Full Relations With Cuba, Erasing a Last Trace of Cold War Hostility

DEC. 17, 2014

WASHINGTON — President Obama on Wednesday ordered the restoration of full diplomatic relations with Cuba and the opening of an embassy in Havana for the first time in more than a half-century as he vowed to “cut loose the shackles of the past” and sweep aside one of the last vestiges of the Cold War.

The surprise announcement came at the end of 18 months of secret talks that produced a prisoner swap negotiated with the help of Pope Francis and concluded by a telephone call between Mr. Obama and President Raúl Castro. The historic deal broke an enduring stalemate between two countries divided by just 90 miles of water but oceans of mistrust and hostility dating from the days of Theodore Roosevelt’s charge up San Juan Hill and the nuclear brinkmanship of the Cuban missile crisis. 

“We will end an outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interests, and instead we will begin to normalize relations between our two countries,” Mr. Obama said in a nationally televised statement from the White House. The deal, he added, will “begin a new chapter among the nations of the Americas” and move beyond a “rigid policy that is rooted in events that took place before most of us were born.”

In doing so, Mr. Obama ventured into diplomatic territory where the last 10 presidents refused to go, and Republicans, along with a senior Democrat, quickly characterized the rapprochement with the Castro family as appeasement of the hemisphere’s leading dictatorship. Republican lawmakers who will take control of the Senate as well as the House next month made clear they would resist lifting the 54-year-old trade embargo.

“This entire policy shift announced today is based on an illusion, on a lie, the lie and the illusion that more commerce and access to money and goods will translate to political freedom for the Cuban people,” said Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida and son of Cuban immigrants. “All this is going to do is give the Castro regime, which controls every aspect of Cuban life, the opportunity to manipulate these changes to perpetuate itself in power.”

For good or ill, the move represented a dramatic turning point in relations with an island that for generations has captivated and vexed its giant northern neighbor. From the 18th century, when successive presidents coveted it, Cuba loomed large in the American imagination long before Fidel Castro stormed from the mountains and seized power in 1959.

Mr. Castro’s alliance with the Soviet Union made Cuba a geopolitical flash point in a global struggle of ideology and power. President Dwight D. Eisenhower imposed the first trade embargo in 1960 and broke off diplomatic relations in January 1961, just weeks before leaving office and seven months before Mr. Obama was born. Under President John F. Kennedy, the failed Bay of Pigs operation aimed at toppling Mr. Castro in April 1961 and the 13-day showdown over Soviet missiles installed in Cuba the following year cemented its status as a ground zero in the Cold War.

But the relationship remained frozen in time long after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, a thorn in the side of multiple presidents who waited for Mr. Castro’s demise and experienced false hope when he passed power to his brother, Raúl. Even as the United States built relations with Communist nations like China and Vietnam, Cuba remained one of just a few nations, along with Iran and North Korea, that had no formal ties with Washington.

Mr. Obama has long expressed hope of transforming relations with Cuba and relaxed some travel restrictions in 2011. But further moves remained untenable as long as Cuba held Alan P. Gross, an American government contractor arrested in 2009 and sentenced to 15 years in a Cuban prison for trying to deliver satellite telephone equipment capable of cloaking connections to the Internet.

After winning re-election, Mr. Obama resolved to make Cuba a priority for his second term and authorized secret negotiations led by two aides, Benjamin J. Rhodes and Ricardo Zúñiga, who conducted nine meetings with Cuban counterparts starting in June 2013, most of them in Canada, which has ties with Havana.

Pope Francis encouraged the talks with letters to Mr. Obama and Mr. Castro and had the Vatican host a meeting in October to finalize the terms of the deal. Mr. Obama spoke with Mr. Castro by telephone on Tuesday to seal the agreement in a call that lasted more than 45 minutes, the first direct substantive contact between the leaders of the two countries in more than 50 years.

On Wednesday morning, Mr. Gross walked out of a Cuban prison and boarded an American military plane that flew him to Washington, accompanied by his wife, Judy. While eating a corned beef sandwich on rye bread with mustard during the flight, Mr. Gross received a call from Mr. Obama. “He’s back where he belongs, in America with his family, home for Hanukkah,” Mr. Obama said later.

For its part, the United States sent back three imprisoned Cuban spies who were caught in 1998 and had become a cause célèbre for the Havana government. They were swapped for Rolando Sarraf Trujillo, a Cuban who had worked as an agent for American intelligence and had been in a Cuban prison for nearly 20 years, according to a senior American official. Mr. Gross was not technically part of the swap, officials said, but was released separately on “humanitarian grounds,” a distinction critics found unpersuasive.

The United States will ease restrictions on remittances, travel and banking, while Cuba will allow more Internet access and release 53 Cubans identified as political prisoners by the United States. Although the embargo will remain in place, the president called for an “honest and serious debate about lifting” it, which would require an act of Congress.

Mr. Castro spoke simultaneously on Cuban television, taking to the airwaves with no introduction and announcing that he had spoken by telephone with Mr. Obama on Tuesday.

“We have been able to make headway in the solution of some topics of mutual interest for both nations,” he declared, emphasizing the release of the three Cubans. “President Obama’s decision deserves the respect and acknowledgment of our people.”

Only afterward did Mr. Castro mention the reopening of diplomatic relations. “This in no way means that the heart of the matter has been resolved,” he said. “The economic, commercial and financial blockade, which causes enormous human and economic damages to our country, must cease.” But, he added, “the progress made in our exchanges proves that it is possible to find solutions to many problems.”

Mr. Obama is gambling that restoring ties with Cuba may no longer be politically unthinkable with the generational shift among Cuban-Americans, where many younger children of exiles are open to change. Nearly six in 10 Americans support re-establishing relations with Cuba, according to a New York Times poll conducted in October. Mr. Obama’s move had the support of the Catholic Church, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Human Rights Watch and major agricultural interests.

At a news conference in Washington, Mr. Gross said he supported Mr. Obama’s move toward normalizing relations with Cuba, adding that his own ordeal and the injustice with which Cuban people had been treated were “a consequence of two governments’ mutually belligerent policies.”

President Obama discussed the release of the contractor, Alan P. Gross, who had been held in Cuba for five years, as well as the release of an intelligence agent held for nearly 20 years.
Video by AP on Publish Date December 17, 2014. Photo by Doug Mills/The New York Times.

“Five and a half decades of history show us that such belligerence inhibits better judgment,” he said. “Two wrongs never make a right. This is a game-changer, which I fully support.”

But leading Republicans, including Speaker John A. Boehner and the incoming Senate majority leader, Senator Mitch McConnell, did not. In addition to Mr. Rubio, two other Republican potential candidates for president joined in the criticism. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas called it a “very, very bad deal,” while former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida said it “undermines the quest for a free and democratic Cuba.”

A leading Democrat agreed. “It is a fallacy that Cuba will reform just because the American president believes that if he extends his hand in peace, that the Castro brothers suddenly will unclench their fists,” said Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the outgoing chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and a Cuban-American.

While the United States has no embassy in Havana, there is a bare-bones facility called an interests section that can be upgraded, currently led by a diplomat, Jeffrey DeLaurentis, who will become the chargé d’affaires pending the nomination and confirmation of an ambassador.

Mr. Obama has instructed Secretary of State John Kerry to begin the process of removing Cuba from the list of states that sponsor terrorism, and the president announced that he would attend a regional Summit of the Americas next spring that Mr. Castro is also to attend. Mr. Obama will send an assistant secretary of state to Havana next month to talk about migration, and Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker may lead a commercial mission.

Mr. Obama’s decision will ease travel restrictions for family visits, public performances, and professional, educational and religious activities, among other things, but ordinary tourism will still be banned under the law. Mr. Obama will also allow greater banking ties, making it possible to use credit and debit cards in Cuba, and American travelers will be allowed to import up to $400 worth of goods from Cuba, including up to $100 in tobacco and alcohol products.

“These 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked,” Mr. Obama said. “It’s time for a new approach.”

He added that he shared the commitment to freedom for Cuba. “The question is how we uphold that commitment,” he said. “I do not believe we can keep doing the same thing for over five decades and expect a different result.”


As Havana Celebrates Historic Shift, Economic and Political Hopes Rise


HAVANA — They crowded around old, battered televisions in Havana and erupted in tears and applause at a spectacle they could scarcely imagine, let alone believe: President Raúl Castro, followed by President Obama, heralding a new era of relations between Cuba and the United States.

But for Armando Gutiérrez, who operates a small inn in Havana, what it really comes down to is beds. He needs better ones, and the usual scramble to find them and other supplies often comes up empty.

Now, Mr. Gutiérrez hopes the salvation of his business is at hand.

“It will be step by step for sure, but we are super happy, all of us without words really to express this history,” Mr. Gutiérrez said by phone — a phone he plans to replace with a better one if the United States makes good on its pledge to send more telecommunications equipment. 

As politically charged as Mr. Obama’s new stance may be in the United States, the sweeping changes he outlined on Wednesday will have a much more profound impact on Cuba — where isolation by the United States has fundamentally shaped the island’s economy, its politics and even its sense of national identity.

For decades, the American embargo of Cuba has been the political sword and shield of the Castros, held responsible for stifling their nation’s development, depriving their people of the most basic needs, and justifying their tight control over all aspects of society.

Now their powerful rival is promising significant expansions in travel, exports and remittances to Cuba, the biggest erosion of the embargo since it was imposed more than 50 years ago.

Experts say it will bring a flood of new money to the island, potentially injecting new life into the economy and, coupled with restored diplomatic ties, transforming relations between the two countries in ways not seen since a bearded rebel named Fidel came down from the Cuban mountains.

“This changes it all,” Carlos Alzugaray, a former Cuban diplomat who is close to the Castros, said from the island.

The question is whether the increased exchange will simply prop up Cuba’s moribund economy and government, or breed truly democratic change on the island, something current American policy has not achieved.

“For Cuba, this is an opportunity to speed up the processes of economic reform, political liberalization and openness,” said Arturo Lopez-Levy, a former Cuban intelligence analyst now at New York University.

Others were more skeptical, having seen previous thaws that did not produce dramatic change. They noted the 1996 American law known as Helms-Burton that prevents widespread commerce, and questioned Cuba’s willingness to open up as well.

“The regime will do everything in its power to have maximum control over foreign investment, forms of employment, high taxes, which have always been a great obstacle for economic and social development,” said José Daniel Ferrer, who coordinates dissident groups in Cuba. “Most of these resources will still be used to maintain a repressive apparatus.”

For many Cubans living through the incremental steps toward private enterprise that Mr. Castro set in motion, the changes announced by Washington and Havana are welcomed as much for their practical worth as for the historic sea change between governments.

The Cuban economy is wobbly, and it may only worsen as its chief patron, Venezuela, slides further into economic and political difficulties. Cuba’s economy grew only 1.4 percent this year, by the government’s own generally rosy statistics, despite significant changes, including allowing the buying and selling of property and cars.

More than 300,000 people have gone into business, and private farming has grown. The government recently said it would convert state-owned restaurants into private cooperatives, and it announced a plan last year to do away with a dual currency system that makes tourism and other goods expensive.

The hope among Cubans is that the new easing of tension with the United States will accelerate the halting steps toward a market economy, while still maintaining the social ideals of free education and health care embedded in what Mr. Castro described on Wednesday as a “prosperous and sustainable socialism.”

But in order for the changes Mr. Obama envisions to work, Cuba will have to loosen up in significant ways. The island’s vows to allow more private enterprise and foreign investment have been far more limited than many Cuban and international entrepreneurs have hoped for, with many saying it is almost impossible for them to participate.

“We have incredible problems,” said Nidialys Acosta, who set up a classic car services business with about 20 associates. “We have to jump through so many hoops.”

The survival of her business depends on two American exports: spare parts for her cars and visitors to ride in them. From now on, she hopes that both will be easier to come by. “I am jumping up and down for joy,” said Ms. Acosta from her home in El Cerro, a Havana neighborhood. “This is my Christmas gift.”

But while the Cuban government has called the expansion of private enterprise essential to reducing the inflated public sector that is burdening the economy, it does not recognize Ms. Acosta’s business or many others. Getting parts like headlamps, mirrors and tires for a 1959 Chevrolet Impala and paying for them is extremely difficult and expensive because they cannot be ordered from the United States, but have to be brought in person by people traveling between Miami and Cuba, she said. Doing financial transactions in Cuba is difficult, she said, because her business does not officially exist.

Excerpts from a speech by President Raúl Castro of Cuba, following the release of Alan P. Gross and the announcement of a restoration of full diplomatic relations with the United States.
Video by AP on Publish Date December 17, 2014. Photo by -/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images.

“The regulations make it almost impossible to thrive,” she said, adding that the government needed “to be more flexible.”

Mr. Obama’s potential willingness to remove Cuba from the State Department list of states that sponsor terrorism could have a big impact, according to Phil Peters, director of the Cuba Research Center in Alexandria, Va. He said the designation has severely complicated Cuba’s ability to do business with international banks, and Mr. Obama said Wednesday that the designation would be reviewed.

“It dramatically raises the cost of doing business” for Cuba, Mr. Peters said. “When Cuba does business internationally, they have to use banks and payment channels that have nothing to do with the United States.”

The Cuban economy has a long list of ailments, including a shortage of cash, brain drain, anemic foreign investment and a scarcity of food production, with nearly 80 percent of its food imported, said Ted Henken, a professor of Latin American studies at Baruch College in New York.

“Without the U.S. to blame,” he said, “the shortcomings of the Cuban government will be much more transparent. The Cuban government will no longer be able to blame the United States for the obstacles that entrepreneurs face. The government will have to be able to explain why it’s so hard to get a loan from a bank, get a cellphone, get access to broadband.”

“That’s going to be revealed for what it is,” he added. “This thing is going to cause rising expectations both outside and inside of Cuba.”

Many Cuban entrepreneurs said they welcomed the change, regardless of the bumps ahead. Niuris Higueras Martínez, founder and owner of popular Atelier, one of the private restaurants known as paladars, said “this news will bring what we need the most, market stability, affordable goods.”

The ability of Americans to use credit cards and debit cards — a specific point Mr. Obama made on Wednesday — would be a big boost, she said, though it would require some adjustment in a country where cash is king.

“All small-business owners like myself would need to learn a banking and credit culture that does not exist yet,” she said. “We will evolve, little by little. I don’t expect all of this to happen quickly, but we are definitely all ready to integrate ourselves in a new market economy.”


Behind the scenes of the US-Cuba deal

Secrecy, the pope and Canada played crucial parts in the 18-month effort to reach the historic agreement

Chris McGreal and John Hooper   
The Guardian, Thursday 18 December 2014 09.34 GMT   

For years, the Cuban government maintained a large billboard facing the six-storey “US interest section” – the half empty former American embassy – on Havana’s seafront, denouncing “Señores Imperialistas” for their bloody policies from Nicaragua to Iraq. The American diplomats inside what was a US embassy in all but name responded by running a giant electronic ticker from the upper windows, relaying news and anti-communist propaganda.

Within months of Barack Obama coming to power in 2009, the billboards were pulled back and the ticker disappeared. It was an early and visible sign that the new administration was prepared to consider a different path to the futility of half a century of isolation and embargos, and that the Cuban government was prepared to respond.

Creeping changes followed, from the easing of restrictions on Americans visiting family in Cuba and sending money to increased scientific and cultural exchanges.

But by the time Obama drew accusations of pandering to a dictator for going out of his way to shake Raúl Castro’s hand at Nelson Mandela’s funeral a year ago, the US and Cuba were engaged in a more far-reaching and secret effort to find a different path. The Vatican helped initiate the talks and finalise the deal. Canada, which Havana has used to bypass the blockade and is the source of a steady flow of tourists to Cuban resorts, hosted several rounds of negotiations.

Now the US interest section – which was built in 1953 but sat empty for years after the Cuban revolution until president Jimmy Carter re-established partial diplomatic relations in 1977 – is to return to its role as a full embassy with an ambassador and, no doubt, plenty of CIA agents.

The Obama administration did not need much encouragement to deal with the Cuban regime, especially since Raúl Castro had succeeded his brother Fidel in 2008 with promises of reform. There was widespread recognition that the embargo had, if anything, helped solidify, not weaken, communist rule in Cuba and that it was a policy driven more by US politics than a realistic prospect of bringing down Castro’s government.

Wayne Smith, the Carter administration’s chief of mission at the US interests section in Havana from 1979, was a vocal critic of the blockade, saying it accomplished nothing, and was a proponent of improved relations as the path to reform in Cuba.

But what the White House did need was secrecy, given the predictable hostility from Republicans – particularly in Florida with its large Cuban immigrant population – in the runup to last month’s elections.

After initial contacts between officials in Washington and Havana, the first face-to-face talks between American and Cuba were held in Canada in June 2013, with the Vatican smoothing the diplomatic path.

For the Americans, the principal obstacle to a public thawing in relations was the continued imprisonment of Alan Gross, a US citizen jailed for smuggling satellite communications equipment into Havana. The Cubans were pressing for the release of three spies held in the US for 15 years.

The archbishop of Havana, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, acted for Pope Francis in bringing the Cuban government along. As the talks progressed, the pope wrote to Obama and Castro urging each side to release the prisoners. It was a delicate issue for the White House, which had consistently denied that Gross was an intelligence agent and did not want to be seen to swap him for Cuban spies.

Havana saw it differently. Gross was arrested while working for a Maryland company that had a $6m (£3.8m) contract with the US Agency for International Development to smuggle equipment into Cuba that could circumvent controls on the internet. To the Cubans, the covert nature of Gross’s actions, and the fact that American government money was funding them, smacked of espionage.

Cuban officials felt equally aggrieved over the arrest in 1998 and jailing of five of its nationals on spying charges in Florida. The Cuban Five, as they became known, were intelligence agents sent to penetrate Cuban exile organisations, including armed groups, that Havana alleged were planning illegal and even terrorist acts against Cuba. The Cuban government said that once evidence was gathered it planned to deliver it to the FBI in the expectation that it would put a stop to the activities. It argued that the agents were not spying on the US.

Eventually a path was found that involved releasing others as well as Gross and the Cuban spies. John Kerry, the US secretary of state, met his Vatican counterpart, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, on Monday, although no public mention of the deal in the works was made. The agreement was finalised in a nearly hour-long call between Obama and Castro on Tuesday. The three remaining Cubans still in federal prison – two had served their time – were released. In return, Cuba freed a double agent.

At Washington’s insistence, Gross’s release was dressed up as a humanitarian gesture rather than part of a trade in spies. Cuba won a commitment from the White House to move towards removing it from the list of states sponsoring terrorism on which the Reagan administration placed Havana in 1982 for its support of liberation movements in Latin America. The White House described the pope’s personal involvement as “very important to the president”.

Now the thaw is out in the open, the Obama administration is keen to play it up as a “the most significant change in our policy in more than 50 years”, as the president put it. Democratic politicians hammered home the message that the embargo had failed and said the US had long ago lifted the embargo against Vietnam, a country it was once at war with. Kerry described US policy of the past five decades as “virtually frozen” and said it had “done little to promote a prosperous, democratic and stable Cuba”. “Not only has this policy failed to advance America’s goals, it has actually isolated the United States instead of isolating Cuba,” he said.

But Kerry and other officials also cautioned that the diplomatic shift is only a beginning and it will not change Cuba overnight. “This new course will not be without challenges, but it is based not on a leap of faith but on a conviction that it’s the best way to help bring freedom and opportunity to the Cuban people, and to promote America’s national security interests in the Americas, including greater regional stability and economic opportunities for American businesses,” Kerry said.

Talks on the normalisation of diplomatic ties are expected to begin within weeks. Then Kerry himself hopes to make history. “I look forward to being the first secretary of state in 60 years to visit Cuba,” he said.


US-Cuba deal: a marriage 18 months in the making, blessed by Pope Francis

Nothing about the past year and a half, from the secret talks in Canada to the public handshake at Nelson Mandela’s funeral, happened by accident

Dan Roberts in Washington, Thursday 18 December 2014 03.42 GMT   

If ever there was a lingering illusion that Barack Obama might have “accidentally” bumped into the president of Cuba at the funeral of Nelson Mandela last December, it will have vanished like a puff of cigar smoke.

What was purportedly an unscripted public handshake at that event in Soweto was, as it turned out, the culmination of six months of secret diplomatic talks held far away in Canada.

But it took another year, and the repeated intervention of no less a figure than Pope Francis, to get to a point where officials in Washington and Havana felt able to tell the world what was really going on – after a final phone call between Obama and Raúl Castro on Tuesday to seal the deal.

Then, like the Berlin Wall – that other great symbol of Cold War intransigence – something that had seemed a permanent fixture of US and global politics only hours earlier was suddenly crumbling before a stunned world.

The first indication that something was afoot were reports that a deal had been reached in which Cuba would free Alan Gross – a US government aid contractor accused by Cuba of being a US spy – on “humanitarian grounds”.

Then, in quick succession, Obama and Castro both announced they would address their respective nations.

The two speeches, broadcast simultaneously on split screens across the Americas, laid out the fruits of 18 months of talks. Gross was not the only prisoner to be released – Cuba would also release an unnamed US agent, as well as 53 political dissidents, and in return, the US would free Gerardo Hernández, Antonio Guerrero and Ramón Labañino, Cuban agents jailed for spying on anti-Castro groups in Florida.

And that was not all. Fifty-three years after US broke off diplomatic relations with Cuba, the two countries would move to restore them and reopen diplomatic missions, and the Obama administration would take steps to relax travel and commercial restrictions.

Legally, Obama’s executive action allowing limited travel, commerce and diplomatic ties can only soften the edges of how the trade embargo is implemented – it will take Congressional approval to end the embargo altogether – but as Congress found to its cost after similar presidential moves on immigration reform last month, legislation is little use without enforcement.

More importantly, by taking things as far as he could without changing the law, Obama hopes to indirectly bring about political change in Cuba that will lead to a breakthrough in the stale debate back home – a paradigm shift which will force US politicians to rethink their skepticism at Castro’s ability to change – their opposition to a lasting reversal of sanctions.

Peter Schechter, director of the Latin America Center at the Atlantic Council, a DC think-tank, made it clear the announcement marked the end of an era: “It’s the beginning of the end of US sanctions on Cuba,” he said.

As in the case of immigration reform, it is hard to imagine that the president could have acted unilaterally in this way until November’s midterm elections were out of the way. A crucial national security meeting at which US officials finalised their end of the plan was held in the White House bunker on November 6, two days after the polls closed.

Cuba has long been the third-rail of American politics; an untouchable issue that threatened to lose whichever party that touched it the support of Florida’s 29 electoral college votes in future presidential elections and unite hawkish Democrats and Republicans like no other country bar perhaps Israel.

This president might not have to worry about elections any more, but his party does, and he needs the support of Congress on a host of other delicate foreign policy challenges such as similar attempts at rapprochement with Iran.

But it also helps that Cuba is no longer the dangerous political issue it once was. Hardline Cuban exiles no longer hold the key to those votes: the old guard who once financed paramilitary raids on Havana harbour is dying out, younger Cuban-Americans with no direct relationship to the island cast their votes based on other issues and the Hispanics who’ve moved to Florida from Puerto Rico, Venezuela and elsewhere in Latin America now outnumber the Cubans in the state.

Shifting political realities across the region may also help explain Obama’s sudden political bravery: Obama and his officials emphasised the wider geopolitical ramifications of the deal.

“Today, America chooses to cut loose the shackles of the past so as to reach for a better future – for the Cuban people, for the American people, for our entire hemisphere, and for the world,” he concluded in his speech.

Such high-flying talk is not just about polishing the Obama legacy. Taken together with his breakthroughs on immigration policy – which many in Central and South America had long felt treated Hispanics in the US differently to any other migrant group – Obama said he hoped his Cuban bombshell may help finally shift the prevailing view of US hypocrisy in the region.

Senior administration officials repeatedly stressed that they saw other Latin American nations in the hemisphere as key to pressuring the Cuban government to institute political reforms now that Havana could no longer point to Washington as the regional baddie.

“It has finally now taken the US out of the equation as a political issue,” Schechter says. “This is no small issue. It is time for people to see what Cuba is without hearing them use the crutch of the US as a big excuse.”

Cuba’s role in framing Latin America’s relationship with the US also helps explain why Pope Francis – the first Latin American pope – played such an important part in bringing the two sides together. Both the US and Cuban governments went out of their way to detail his extensive role behind the scenes.

Contact between the two sides gained vital extra momentum from letters the pope sent to Obama and Castro last summer. The Vatican said the letters called on the two countries “to resolve humanitarian questions of common interest, including the situation of certain prisoners, in order to initiate a new phase in relations”.

The Vatican also hosted delegations from Cuba and the US at what were said to have been the talks at which the breakthrough was made.

Papal officials were much more involved, according to the White House, than Canada had been in providing a neutral forum for talks previously. They were active facilitators and helped finalise not just the prisoner exchange but the wider normalisation of relations, according to a US source present at the meetings.

“The support of Pope Francis and the support of the Vatican was important to us, given the esteem with which both the American and Cuban people hold the Catholic Church, and in particular Pope Francis who has a substantial history in Latin America and is the first pope to be chosen from Latin America,” a senior administration official said.

Obama also discussed the issue at length with the pope during his public visit to the Vatican in March, where no other issue received more attention in their private discussions, according to US sources.

One of the few other world institutions as opaque and as powerful as the Vatican, the Central Intelligence Agency was also brought on side.

Opinions may have differed on the role of Alan Gross, who the US insists never had any espionage role, but all sides concede that a vital part of the deal was the release of the unnamed Cuban who spied for America – and who had been in prison for 20 years.

The agent has repeatedly been described by officials as one of the most significant “intelligence assets” in modern US history, and his release was described by the director of national security, James Clapper, as a “fitting closure to the Cold War chapter”.

Obama is determined that the pincer movement of economic modernisation and regional and spiritual cajoling will help bring about the longer-term breakthroughs in human rights and democracy that he concedes are largely absent from the existing deal so far.

It may be quick and irreversible like Eastern Europe or faltering and uncertain like Russia, but he hopes this change will be as much a part of his legacy as it was for Ronald Reagan.

But the real hope of change lies in Cuba. Its president spoke on Wednesday of building “a prosperous and sustainable socialism” in the wake of the deal.

The economic and cultural modernisation inside Cuba that the White House hopes will follow from the relaxation of US trade and travel restrictions is also important – such modernisation certainly played a role in destabilising the Soviet bloc – but it could just as easily lead instead to another China: an economically open but politically closed regime stubbornly clinging to its Communist past.

And the forces of economic change are limited. Americans travelling under certain regulations can bring back cigars from Havana for personal use, but without Congressional action there is no fat Cohiba yet for US industry. Something bigger and longer term will be needed first.

Whether this can be managed remains an open question: Florida senator Marco Rubio, a Republican who is the son of Cuban immigrants and a fierce opponent of “appeasement” of the Castro regime, looked on the verge of tears at a press conference on Capitol Hill as he railed against a deal he could do little to reverse.

Congress also remains to be convinced. House Democratic whip Steny Hoyer, a usually reliable ally, issued a statement late on Wednesday welcoming the prisoner exchange but questioning whether Cuba’s “brutal and repressive” regime was really ready to change.

“Today’s actions must be met with reciprocal steps by President Raul Castro’s regime,” he said. “Congress ought to do what it can to keep the pressure on the Cuban government to ensure that it begins to move toward greater democracy.”

At some point Obama will need lawmakers to finish the job and pull down the rest of the embargo if it is to have lasting effect. Now the president must hope that before he has to change minds in Congress, Cuba will have changed itself.

 on: Dec 18, 2014, 08:21 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
Palestinians Make Strides Toward Draft Resolution at U.N.

DEC. 17, 2014

UNITED NATIONS — After a day of intense lobbying, the Palestinians persuaded their fellow Arab diplomats here to support a draft Security Council resolution that sets a one-year deadline for negotiations with Israel and is aimed at the full withdrawal of Israeli forces from the West Bank.

The draft measure was formally shared with the 15 members of the Security Council, with language that sets down targets for Palestinian sovereignty, including land swaps, a shared capital in Jerusalem and “full and phased withdrawal of Israeli forces” by the end of 2017.

Those strict deadlines are unlikely to muster the support the resolution needs to pass, and even the Palestinian ambassador to the United Nations, Riyad Mansour, stopped short of pressing for a swift vote. Indeed, he left open the possibility that the language could still be massaged to assuage the concerns of council members, not least the United States, which is Israel’s principal ally and wields veto power.

“We will continue negotiating with all of them, and the Americans if they are ready and willing, so that perhaps we can succeed in having something adopted by the Security Council,” he said at the end of two closed-door sessions with Arab diplomats here.

A draft Security Council resolution sets the one-year deadline for negotiations with Israel and is aimed at the full withdrawal of Israeli forces from the West Bank.
OPEN Document

The Americans did not immediately respond to the move. Secretary of State John Kerry was noncommittal in his comments on the resolution earlier this week, suggesting that his government favored “constructive conversation” and would prefer to refrain from taking any action that could interfere in the coming Israeli elections.

Mr. Kerry made those comments after meeting with Palestinian officials and his counterparts from France, Britain and Germany. The three European foreign ministers have been discussing another, softer draft resolution to set a timetable and targets for Israeli-Palestinian talks.

The United States has traditionally been reluctant to address the conflict in the Security Council, preferring direct talks instead.

The resolution lays out a 12-month deadline for “a just, lasting and comprehensive peaceful solution that brings an end to the Israeli occupation,” borders based on 1967 boundaries, recognition of the State of Palestine, and the withdrawal of Israeli security forces “over an agreed transition period in a reasonable time frame, not to exceed the end of 2017.”

Palestinian officials in Ramallah had announced their intention to go to the Security Council earlier in the week. The move seemed more aimed at sending a political message to Palestinians back home than spurring the Security Council into action. Jordan, which represents the Arab states on the Council and is the only country in a position to circulate a draft measure, apparently sought to persuade the Palestinians to negotiate further to reach a compromise text.

But the Palestinians finally convinced the other Arab diplomats. It was left to Mr. Mansour to emerge from a two-hour meeting with the diplomats — the second one of the day — and announce his victory, albeit modest. The draft measure would be put “in blue” later that evening, he said, which meant that the language would be shared publicly and that, in theory, it could be put up for a vote in 24 hours. A draft resolution could also, in theory, languish forever.

 on: Dec 18, 2014, 08:19 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
Zambian Officials Call for Acting President’s Ouster, Sharpening Power Struggle

DEC. 18, 2014

LONDON — In a deepening crisis that has raised questions about his country’s political future, Guy Scott, the acting president of Zambia and Africa’s only white leader, is fighting a revolt within his cabinet before elections next month.

Mr. Scott assumed the interim presidency after former President Michael Sata died in October, and he has confronted a struggle for power in recent weeks in the governing Patriotic Front. The dispute sharpened on Wednesday when the foreign minister, Harry Kalaba, called on Mr. Scott to resign. Mr. Kalaba is among 14 out of 17 cabinet ministers calling for the ouster of Mr. Scott, who is seeking to oversee a transition to elections on Jan. 20, news reports said.

In response, Mr. Scott refused to quit, saying in a statement quoted by Reuters: “I will not be blackmailed to allow the illegal use of government resources for partisan interests. I will abide by the law.”

He accused his adversaries of trying to hold an unlawful cabinet meeting, representing a “serious act of treason,” and insisted that he would remain in office to ensure a smooth transfer of power.

Mr. Scott — a Zambian citizen and former farmer who, as Mr. Sata’s deputy in the Patriotic Front, was the country’s vice president — is not permitted to run in next month’s elections because his parents were born outside the country. A faction loyal to him, however, is supporting Miles Sampa, a nephew of Mr. Sata’s, as its candidate.

An opposing group has coalesced around the defense minister, Edgar Lungu. The two sides have made rival claims to represent the Patriotic Front.

News reports said the Zambian High Court, which earlier ruled in favor of Mr. Lungu, was to meet on Thursday to consider Mr. Sampa’s claim to be the Patriotic Front’s lawful presidential contender.

The increasingly tense standoff in Zambia, a landlocked, copper-rich nation, has contributed to a sense of regional turmoil in recent weeks as President Robert G. Mugabe of neighboring Zimbabwe purged his party and elevated his wife, Grace Mugabe, to high office. Mr. Mugabe, 90, Africa’s autocratic oldest statesman, also replaced his former vice president, Joice Mujuru, with Emmerson Mnangagwa, a longtime aide with a tough-guy reputation and close ties to the security and intelligence elite.

Zambian newspapers have reported that Mr. Lungu and Mr. Kalaba traveled to Harare, the Zimbabwean capital, last week to brief Mr. Mugabe on the crisis in their own country. Mr. Kalaba denied that they had been seeking financial support.

Mr. Mugabe wields broader influence because he is currently the chairman of the 15-nation Southern African Development Community, the region’s main economic and political bloc.

The divisions in the Patriotic Front in Zambia have emboldened opposition politicians, who say the split has weakened the party’s grip on power, raising the prospect of further uncertainty in a nation once known for relative stability and tranquillity.

 on: Dec 18, 2014, 08:18 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
Patrolling a Disputed Line, Israeli Border Police Become a Focus of Anger

DEC. 17, 2014

JERUSALEM — As Chief Superintendent Aviad Ketafi of Israel’s border police steered his sport utility vehicle through the East Jerusalem neighborhood of A-Tur on Monday afternoon, Palestinian youths pelted it with stones. The barrage bounced off the vehicle’s special plastic windows and the metal grating covering its windshield.

That is a routine event for members of the force charged with the challenging task of policing a border that is contested and has never been internationally recognized.

“You can see there’s no border,” Chief Superintendent Ketafi had said as he toured the city’s hot spots earlier. “It’s one breathing city, and that’s exactly the complexity of giving a solution.”

The border police, whose green berets are a nod to the Green Line that demarcated Israeli territory from its hostile neighbors in 1949 armistice agreements, serve in the most delicate situations. They are leading a new crackdown on Arab areas of Jerusalem after a spate of terror attacks. They regularly staff checkpoints, contain riots and carry out arrest raids in the occupied West Bank.

That has put the force at the center of rising concern over what critics see as Israel’s heavy-handed security presence. Though a border police spokesman said complaints against the force had dropped 30 percent over the past decade, its officers stand accused of misconduct in several episodes this year that were captured on video and broadcast around the world.

One officer, identified this week as 21-year-old Ben Deri, faces manslaughter charges in the fatal shooting of a Palestinian teenager at a May demonstration; he is said to have surreptitiously used live ammunition rather than the prescribed rubber bullets. Another, who has not been publicly identified, was indicted on a charge of assault after beating a handcuffed American cousin of an East Jerusalem 16-year-old abducted and murdered in July.

And last week, a man in the signature green uniform grabbed and shoved a senior Palestinian official at a protest shortly before the official died of a heart attack in what the Palestine Liberation Organization has denounced as an Israeli “assassination.”

“It’s like a mafia,” said Abdallah Abu Rahmeh, a veteran activist in the West Bank village of Bilin who said he had been beaten with batons and shot at “many times” by border police officers. “They don’t respect the rules, they don’t respect human rights, they don’t respect international law, they don’t respect everything.”

Since the force’s creation in 1953, five years after Israel’s establishment, the role of the border police has grown more complicated through decades of conflict with the Palestinians. A spokesman, Superintendent Shai Hakimi, said of the videotaped beating, “nothing justifies the punching of a 15-year-old,” but that such episodes were anomalous.

“The places that these fighters are placed are the most explosive, sensitive and complex in the state, with a daily, immediate threat to their lives,” he said. “And despite all this, the number of these negative events are still a very, very small percentage.”

The 8,000-member force, known by its Hebrew acronym, Magav, is divided about equally between career officers and young people fulfilling compulsory military service. Officially part of the Israel national police, officers stationed in the West Bank operate under army command, another oddity of the longstanding occupation. Trained in police and military tactics, they carry 9-millimeter pistols and M-16 rifles like soldiers, but also use pepper spray and stun grenades.

Near the Qalandiya checkpoint outside the West Bank city of Ramallah on Tuesday afternoon, six border police officers wore black ski masks. Some took cover behind their armored-vehicle doors amid intense shooting from a nearby funeral, and they later chased away stone-throwers.

“I know the image, but you have to look at the reality: They are confronting a very, very tough and complicated situation, and they are very professional,” said David Tsur, who headed Magav from 2002 to 2004 and is now a centrist member of Parliament. “In my political perspective, we should solve the strategic problem and not look at these tactical issues. We need to reduce the checkpoints, we need to reduce the tension. Until we do that, we will try to fix the individual who is getting out of control.”

Magav was the first to offer combat roles to women, in 1995, and was deeply involved in Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005 as well as home-front defense during the 2006 Lebanon war. More than 400 border police officers have died in the line of duty, most recently Chief Inspector Jaddan Assad, 38, who was killed Nov. 5 when a Palestinian plowed his car into a crowd of pedestrians at a Jerusalem light-rail station.

Admission is competitive — Superintendent Hakimi said six youths vied for each available slot in the latest draft — and the force has long attracted Israel’s non-Jewish minorities, Jews of Middle Eastern background and new immigrants. Druse, less than 2 percent of the population, make up 10 percent of the troops.

Sociologists say that Magav provides important opportunities for these groups, but also that the demographic makeup helps drive its aggressiveness.

“They have to prove themselves as loyal citizens to Israeli society,” said Yigal Levy, a professor at the Open University who studies military culture. “These people were educated to hate Arabs; this is the spirit in many of the development towns from which these people came,” he added. “In Magav, they have the opportunity to conflate this hatred into action.”

B’tselem, an Israeli human-rights organization, said that since the start of the second intifada, or Palestinian uprising, in 2000, it had filed 55 complaints against border police officers for killing civilians, 58 for episodes in which people were wounded, and 177 for other misconduct. In these cases, according to the group, there have been five convictions, 11 indictments, and 17 other criminal investigations opened.

In November, Jerusalem’s Foreign Press Association issued a statement complaining of four “attacks” against journalists in a week by border police officers, one with rubber bullets shot at close range.

But Sarit Michaeli, a spokeswoman for B’tselem who was shot by a Magav rubber bullet at a protest last year, said the officers were often “much more professional and calm” than army soldiers “because they’re so used to these kind of confrontations.”

Since the end of October, about 1,000 additional border police officers have been deployed in East Jerusalem, more than doubling Magav’s presence, in what it calls Operation Guardians of the Walls. On a dirt lot at the entrance to the Palestinian neighborhood of Issawiya, near a gas station that was vandalized this summer, there is now a police tent, lookout point, and a dozen officers stopping cars to check identification and search trunks. Another 35 patrol the neighborhood’s streets.

“This village was a center of protests and riots; they were throwing firebombs and firecrackers,” said Superintendent Ketafi, whose 80-person unit was among those brought in. “If you look now, the village is quiet. A lot of forces who came here have created a new reality.”

Mohammed Abu Houmus, a father of four in Issawiya, said the new checkpoint had led him to leave his car at home, walking out of the neighborhood instead to catch a cab.

“People feel afraid,” he said, citing a woman who was recently ticketed for a problem with a tire. “You see, they stop the Arabs; they don’t stop the Jews.”

 on: Dec 18, 2014, 08:16 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad

We’ll be back, vow defiant Hong Kong democrats as main protest is broken up

Struggle for voting rights will continue, say analysts, as crackdown unites opposition and erodes trust in Beijing

Tania Branigan in Beijing
The Guardian, Thursday 11 December 2014 18.44 GMT        

There was no danger of missing the parting message from Hong Kong’s protesters on Thursday. It was chanted as they awaited arrest, spelt out in gold balloons, chalked on to the road and formed in giant letters made from their discarded tents: “We’ll be back.”

The dismantling of the main protest zone at Admiralty on Thursday has concluded the first phase of a pro-democracy movement that astonished even its most enthusiastic advocates, at one stage drawing tens of thousands into unprecedented mass civil disobedience.

But while the occupation is over – bar the handful of participants left at a small site in Causeway Bay – no one believes the clearance has finished off the campaign for genuine elections.

Carrie Lam, chief secretary of Hong Kong, said earlier that the government was not “naive” enough to think removing demonstrators from Admiralty would mark the end of the movement.

Long before the barricades fell and the tents were dragged away, activists had begun debating their next course of action. Behind closed doors, authorities are also pondering their options.

Ho-fung Hung, of Johns Hopkins University in the US, grew up in Hong Kong and follows its politics. He said: “If Beijing signals a little bit of willingness, they think it will give the wrong signal to people to come out again, so for now I think the hard line will prevail.

“There will be arrests and the situation will turn for the worst, but the young people’s anger is still here ... This could erupt any time.”

The authorities would crack down to warn people off further protests, he said, through means including prosecutions and restrictions on travel to the mainland. Yet such measures are likely to further antagonise people.

In the short term there is likely to be more street activism – probably “shopping trips” by protesters, who roam the busy pavements of areas such as Mong Kok shouting slogans, and perhaps boycotts, sit-ins and other measures. Small clusters of protesters still milled around Admiralty and a secondary, minor site at Causeway Bay on Thursday night, while a few had moved their tents to a park in Wanchai.

On the government side, there will be a second public consultation on the plans for the election of the next chief executive in 2017. Protesters say Beijing has in effect reneged on its promise of universal suffrage by making clear that candidates will be tightly controlled by a committee stacked with pro-Beijing figures. That is merely “fake” or “Iranian-style” democracy, they say.

Pan-democrats, as the opposition in Hong Kong politics are known, have vowed to veto the proposals if they come before the Legislative Council in their current form, and no one believes that China will back down by allowing open nominations. But Hung said Beijing could give a token concession – for example, by tweaking the make-up of the nominating committee – giving cover to a handful of democratic legislators to vote for the bill.

Some think that China can afford to let the bill fall: it can say it has done its part by offering universal suffrage to Hong Kong, only for the offer to be rejected.

Hung disagrees: “Beijing wants to get it passed, because once it has passed the whole issue that defines the democratic camp looks like it’s over: the issue of universal suffrage is settled.

“It keeps the democratic movement going if they veto it ... It still gives people hope that Beijing will eventually give another [better] proposal.”

Polls show that as the occupation dragged on, it lost much of the public sympathy it had garnered in its early stages. Yet the underlying demand for greater democratic rights is still evident.

Michael Davis, of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said: “The government may be inclined to think it won when they cleared the streets tonight, but that would be wrong … The government has lost the public’s trust. [And] they have made the world very conscious of what’s going on here.

“The democrats haven’t lost anything because they didn’t have anything. The whole process has united them in a way they haven’t been for years; being in permanent opposition had meant a lot of fissures in the democratic camp.”

Davis, like many other residents, sees it as an awakening for Hong Kong – though not all sudden upsurges in political action result in long-term shifts.

It will take decades for the real struggle to play out. Though the protests were sparked by the electoral reform proposals, they were fuelled by concern that the existing freedoms and rights enjoyed by residents under the “one country, two systems” framework are imperilled by Beijing’s tightening grip, and that migration and closer integration with the mainland are wearing away its culture.

Even those who do not care greatly about gaining the ability to choose the chief executive may value the independence of their courts, for instance. Yet this summer a white paper from Beijing said that local judges should be “patriotic”, alarming many in the territory.

Beijing seems determined to make itself felt – but each such move sparks a backlash, in particular among the younger generation, who are more likely to identify as “Hong Kong people” than “Chinese”.

When the former British colony was handed back in 1997, few anticipated how much the region’s identity would change – and how little the mainland would shift politically. That has created an apparently irreconcilable tension.

“A hard line on Hong Kong might eventually be able to keep the middle and upper class in line,” predicted Hung, “but it can never contain the resistance of the younger generation.”

 on: Dec 18, 2014, 08:14 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
U.S. Cinemas Cancel Film Parody of N. Korea Leader after Threats

by Naharnet Newsdesk 17 December 2014, 22:53

U.S. cinemas canceled screenings, including a red-carpet New York premiere, of a madcap comedy that offended North Korea, after mysterious computer hackers issued a chilling threat.

Hollywood studio Sony Pictures said it is not pulling the film, but is leaving it to theater chains to decide whether to show the movie, which depicts a fictional plot to assassinate North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un.

"We plan to release the film," said a source at Sony, which is dealing with fallout from an enormous cyber-attack last month.

The source added that a decision whether to show the film "is with theater owners, partners whom we support."

Two movie chains, Carmike theaters and Bow Tie theaters, said they will not show the movie, while the New York City premiere scheduled for this week at the Landmark chain's Sunshine Cinema also has been canceled, Variety reported.

Two other major chains, AMC and Regal Theaters, did not immediately respond to Agence France-Presse requests for comment.

"Will theater owners balk at booking the film? It's actually highly possible," said analyst Jeff Bock of box office tracker Exhibitor Relations, adding that the film had been set for a relatively modest debut anyway when it opens on Christmas Day.

"Truth be told, 'The Interview' wasn't likely to be in more than 2,500 theaters anyways, but that number could actually drop significantly now," he told AFP.

Meanwhile, the film's stars, James Franco and Seth Rogen, have canceled all promotional appearances linked to the film.

Skittishness about attending the movie follows threats by the so-called GOP (Guardians of Peace) hacking group, which invoked the September 11, 2001 attacks in an ominous warning to any movie-goers planning to see the film.

The group warned in a message written in broken English that a "bitter fate" awaits any who attend the film.

"Soon all the world will see what an awful movie Sony Pictures Entertainment has made. The world will be full of fear," the statement warned.

It added: "Remember the 11th of September 2001. We recommend you to keep yourself distant from the places at that time. (If your house is nearby, you'd better leave.)"

U.S. officials, meanwhile, have played down the threat.

"There is no credible intelligence backing this up at this point in time," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told CNN.

In addition to the threats, Sony has been seen the release of a trove of highly unflattering internal emails, unpublished scripts and other internal communications, including information about salaries, employee health records and other personal information.

On Monday, Sony Pictures boss Michael Lynton sought to reassure employees that the studio would not be destroyed by the leaks.

"This will not take us down," Lynton told employees, adding: "You should not be worried about the future of this studio."

North Korea has denied involvement in the brazen November 24 cyber-attack, which some expert said could possibly have been carried out by disgruntled workers or by supporters of North Korea furious over the movie.

Meanwhile, lawyers have filed two class action lawsuits against Sony Pictures in Los Angeles.

One of the suits alleges that "Sony failed to secure and protect its computer systems, servers, and databases, resulting in the release of the named plaintiffs and other class members'" personal data.

"An epic nightmare, much better suited to a cinematic thriller than to real life, is unfolding in slow motion for Sony's current and former employees," the 45-page lawsuit said.

Source: Agence France Presse

 on: Dec 18, 2014, 08:03 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
 How technology can prevent food wastage in developing countries
Fresh produce worth £4.4bn is lost every year in India alone due to poor refrigeration, yet big business has not taken action
Bananas growing over a road

Wasted and spoiled produce results in billion-pound losses from developing economies each year. Photograph: Alamy

Katherine Earley
Thursday 18 December 2014 12.30 GMT

Up to 40% of food produced in the developing world is wasted before it reaches the market, according to figures from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). With the number of middle-class consumers predicted to rise to three billion by 2030, with the majority of growth in developing countries, tackling this problem is no small feat – particularly as rising affluence in urban areas is likely to trigger a higher demand for richer diets and more complex food supply chains.

Lack of access to cold chain technology and reliable energy sources are the major reasons for crops perishing after harvest, research by Nottingham University shows (pdf). The cost of delivering energy to remote, rural regions means that, even when storage facilities are built, they may nevertheless go stand empty. Poor transport infrastructure causes further losses, and a lack of education on post-harvest practices often results in poor quality control and food being damaged during handling.

“Without the technology, expertise and understanding necessary to keep their harvest fresh, smallholder farmers are often locked into a cycle of poverty, unable to access global markets,” says Dr Lisa Kitinoja, founder of the Postharvest Education Foundation.

India suffers losses of up to £4.4bn in fruit and vegetables each year due to the absence of effective technologies to keep produce cool. Despite being the world’s largest banana producer, it holds just 0.3% of the global banana market. Production is fragmented compared to the large-scale commercial farms of its competitors, with smallholder farmers typically cultivating small plots with little business or technical support. Less than 4% of India’s fresh produce is transported by cold chain, compared to more than 90% in the UK.

Better cold storage, education about food handling and improved infrastructure could help to transform this situation, according a study by Maersk (pdf) – potentially growing the trade of banana containers from 3,000 to 190,000 annually, and benefitting more than 34,000 smallholder farmers across India.

Lack of corporate support

The Institute of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) estimates that a quarter of food waste in developing countries could be eliminated through use of refrigeration equipment to keep food cold during transit. Clean technology, powered by renewable energy, could allow developing countries to leapfrog the west’s largely fossil-fuel powered cold chain system, according to Tim Fox, IMechE’s head of energy and environment.

“We’re currently seeing a bottom-up push for innovative, clean technologies, rather than a top-down push from western food producers and retailers,” says Fox. “Major companies should be more proactive in supporting their producers in developing countries.”

However, Kitinoja believes some businesses may have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo of high food losses, as this keeps the demand for fertilisers, seeds and tools and services high. Corporate support to date has included Maersk’s sponsorship of the World Food Preservation Center, a collaboration of 10 universities committed to reducing world hunger, and US food processing giant ADM’s funding of the University of Illinois’ Institute for the Prevention of Postharvest Loss – but far more could be done to help producers in the developing world to reduce waste.

Small-scale technology

In 2013, the Powering Agriculture competition showcased a range of new tools from small-scale technology developers. Among them was India’s Promethean Power Systems, which uses solar energy to cool milk and is aimed at dairy processors collecting from rural farmers. Another winner, developed by the University of Georgia, was a cooling system in Uganda powered by biogas extracted from cow manure.

Elsewhere, the American-invented CoolBot thermostatic controller can be coupled with a standard home air conditioner to create low-cost cool rooms, using less energy than an equivalent commercial cooler compressor.

Cryogenic energy storage (using low temperature liquids to deliver sustainable energy and cooling) also has potential as a scalable, clean, cold chain technology, concludes IMechE’s Tank of Cold report. For example, the UK’s Dearman Engine Company is pioneering a zero-emission piston engine powered by the expansion of so-called “liquid air.” It has the potential to improve the green credentials of refrigerated transport, and there are plans to integrate it into mainstream commercial vehicle fleets and railway wagons.

According to a study (pdf) by the University of Birmingham, liquid air technologies could help to prevent environmental pollution as developing countries such as India look to scale up their use of cold chains. The research estimates that India’s refrigerated vehicle fleet may need to grow 100-fold by 2025.
Investing in smallholders

Investment remains the major barrier to scaling up such technologies. Governments will need to remove unnecessary red tape, which puts off investors, Fox says, particularly where it is holding back large-scale investment in renewable energy. Microfinance initiatives and farmer co-operatives could also help smallholders to purchase equipment and benefit from new technology and infrastructure.

“Empowering smallholder farmers with new technology will require significant, widespread on-the-ground education and training,” Kitinoja concludes. “It’s important to help farmers understand why they should want these solutions. Highlighting the rapid return on investment and the competitive edge they bring is central to encouraging widespread adoption.”

Katharine Earley is a journalist and copywriter specialising in sustainability.


Isro blasts India’s biggest rocket into space

Unmanned capsule on board GSLV Mk-III, designed to carry three astronauts, is also successfully tested
Agence France-Presse in Bangalore
The Guardian, Thursday 18 December 2014 11.15 GMT

India successfully launched its biggest ever rocket on Thursday carrying an unmanned capsule that could one day send astronauts into space, as the country ramps up its ambitious space programme.

The rocket, designed to carry heavier communication and other satellites into higher orbit, blasted off from Sriharikota in the south-east state of Andhra Pradesh in a test mission costing nearly $25m (£16m).

“This was a very significant day in the history of (the) Indian space programme,” Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) chairman KS Radhakrishnan said from mission control as fellow scientists clapped and cheered.

Isro scientists have been riding high since an Indian spacecraft reached Mars in September on a shoestring budget, winning Asia’s race to the red planet and sparking an outpouring of national pride.

Although India has launched lighter satellites in recent years, it has struggled to match the heavier loads that other countries increasingly want sent up.

The new rocket, weighing 630 tonnes and capable of carrying a payload of four tonnes, is a boost for India’s attempts to grab a greater slice of the $300bn global space market.

“India, you have a new launch vehicle with you. We have made it again,” said S Somnath, director of the mission.

“The powerful launch vehicle has come to shape, which will change our destiny ... (by) placing heavier spacecraft into communications orbits.”

The rocket was carrying an unmanned crew capsule which Isro said successfully separated from the rocket and splashed down in the Bay of Bengal off India’s east coast 20 minutes after liftoff.

The Indian-made capsule is designed to carry up to three astronauts into space.

Isro officials said the crew capsule would be recovered from the sea and ferried back to Sriharikota by Friday for further studies.

India’s manned spaceflight programme has seen multiple stops and starts in recent years, and Isro said the crew capsule project would take at least another seven years to reach the point where an astronaut could be put into space.

The Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, hailed the test mission as “yet another triumph of (the) brilliance and hard work of our scientists” in a post on Twitter.

Radhakrishnan said the next step would be to develop a more powerful indigenous engine, reducing India’s reliance on those built in Europe, for the rocket, which is officially named the Geostationary Satellite Launch Vehicle Mk-III.

“Our own cryogenic engine, which is at development stage, will be used in powering the advanced heavy rockets in the next two years,” he said.

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