Their Men in Caracas: The Cuban Expats Shoring Up Maduro’s Government Reply

From military advisers to aid workers, thousands of Cubans form an information network across Venezuela’s economy

By Paulo A Paranagua, Guardian Weekly

Cuba hopes ally Nicolás Maduro can avoid an election in the throes of an economic crisis. Photograph: Miguel Gutierrez/EPA

Cuba hopes ally Nicolás Maduro can avoid an election in the throes of an economic crisis. Photograph: Miguel Gutierrez/EPA

When asked how many Cubans are working in Venezuela, minister of foreign affairs Elías Jaua cites the 25,000 medical aid workers in the programme launched by the late president Hugo Chávez, adding “about 1,000 sports trainers and 600 farming technicians”. The opposition claims the number is higher, particularly as there are Cuban advisers in all the ministries and state-owned companies.

At the end of February the student leader Gaby Arellano tried to present a petition to the Cuban ambassador in Caracas. “We will not allow Cubans to interfere in our affairs any longer,” she said. “We don’t want them to go on controlling the media, directing military operations or indoctrinating our children.” Teodoro Petkoff, a leftwing opposition figure, is not convinced Havana exerts that much influence. “Such claims play down the responsibility of the Chavistas for what’s going on,” he says.

Defence specialist Rocío San Miguel believes Cuba really does influence policymakers in Venezuela. She recalls the way Chávez’s illness was managed, his hospitalisation in Havana clothed in secrecy, and the transfer of power to Nicolás Maduro (pictured), who was educated in Cuba. “Cuban officers attend strategic planning meetings for the armed forces,” she says, basing her claim on insider sources.

“It’s not a myth, it’s the reality,” says General Raúl Baduel, minister of defence under Chávez and now in custody at the Ramo Verde military prison. The Cubans have modernised the intelligence services, both the Sebin (Bolivarian National Intelligence Service) that reports directly to the president, and military intelligence. They also set up a special unit to protect the head of state.

Furthermore Cubans have computerised Venezuela’s public records, giving them control over the issue of identity papers and voter registration. They have representatives in the ports and airports, as well as supervising foreign nationals. They took part in purchases of military equipment and work on the Maracaibo airbase.

“All Cuban ‘internationalists’ have had military training and must, if required, fulfil combat duties,” San Miguel asserts. “Cubans form an information network which keeps Havana up-to-date on shifts in public opinion,” says political observer Carlos Romero.

Feature continues here:  Their Men in Caracas

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Biden to Cuban Media: Alan Gross Detention a Key Obstacle in Diplomatic Relations 1

Vice President Joe Biden

Vice President Joe Biden

By Dana Davidsen CNN

(CNN) – Vice President Joe Biden sat down with a Cuban media outlet – a significant move given the decades-long tension between the United States and Cuba since the countries ended diplomatic relations more than 50 years ago.

In the interview published Tuesday, Biden cited the detention of Alan Gross, an American serving a 15-year sentence as a key obstacle in improving relations.

Biden made his comments to 14ymedio, a recently launched digital newspaper created by Yoani Sánchez, a Cuban blogger and fierce critic of the governments of Raul and Fidel Castro.

“I cannot emphasize enough that Cuba’s continued detention of Alan Gross is a major impediment to improved relations between the United States and Cuba,” Biden said, according to a translation provided by his office.

Gross was convicted in 2011 for bringing satellite communications equipment into the country as part of his work as a subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development.

U.S. officials have said Gross was simply trying to help Cubans bypass their government’s stringent restrictions on Internet access.

“We can be as creative as we like with our policy, but Alan’s case remains at the top of our list for resolution. He deserves to come home, and should be released on humanitarian grounds,” Biden said.

President Barack Obama also answered questions from Sánchez in 2009, which she posted to her blog.

In that interview, Obama responded to a question regarding allegations that his administration was attempting to undermine Cuban authority, throwing cold water on the notion that the United States had plans to invade the island.

“I can give you the simplest of answers, and that answer is no. Just as President Obama said,” Biden said when asked about those concerns. “These accusations are a relic of the distant past. They are being used to strike fear into the hearts of decent Cubans who might otherwise focus on problems closer to home.”

Sánchez’s journalistic venture was, until Sunday, blocked by users in Cuba. Since the publication’s launch last week, for a few days, users were redirected to website apparently dedicated to slamming Sánchez and government dissidents, according to the Miami Herald.

The interview with Biden took place in April, as Sánchez notes in the article, while she was in Washington.

Further stoking fears in the Cuban government that Washington is trying to subvert its authority are accusations that the U.S. government tried to flood communications networks with the creation of a cell phone-based “Cuban Twitter,” known as ZunZuneo.

The program, which ended in 2012, allowed Cubans to message each other free of Cuban government restrictions on communications and allowed U.S. government officials to send mass messages to Cubans.

LASA Conference Hosted Cuban 5 Event 3

The convicted spies lauded by Havana as the "Cuban Five"

The convicted spies lauded by Havana as the “Cuban Five”

Memorial Day weekend at the Latin American Studies Association (LASA) 2014 Conference in Chicago featured an “Evening in Solidarity with the Cuban 5.” At this forum, Cuban and U.S. academics, as well as pro-Castro activists gathered for a reception where the myth of Cuban spy “anti-terrorists” featured prominently. According to Radio Havana Cuba, the event’s organizers included “the Chicago Cuba Coalition, the Chicago Cuban Five Committee, the National Committee to Free the Cuban Five and the ANSWER Coalition, among others.

Fidel Castro Lived Like a King in Cuba, Book Claims 5

Fidel Castro wrote for communist party newspaper Granma but gradually vanished from public view. Photograph: Alex Castro/AP

Fidel Castro wrote for communist party newspaper Granma but gradually vanished from public view. Photograph: Alex Castro/AP

Former bodyguard Juan Reinaldo Sánchez writes that leader ran country like a cross between medieval overlord and Louis XV

Kim Willsher in Paris, The Guardian

Fidel Castro lived like a king with his own private yacht, a luxury Caribbean island getaway complete with dolphins and a turtle farm, and travelled with two personal blood donors, a new book claims.

In La Vie Cachée de Fidel Castro (Fidel Castro’s Hidden Life), former bodyguard Juan Reinaldo Sánchez, a member of Castro’s elite inner circle, says the Cuban leader ran the country as his personal fiefdom like a cross between a medieval overlord and Louis XV.

Sánchez, who was part of Castro’s praetorian guard for 17 years, describes a charismatic and intelligent but manipulative, cold-blooded, egocentric Castro prone to foot-stamping temper tantrums. He claims the vast majority of Cubans were unaware their leader enjoyed a lifestyle beyond the dreams of many Cubans and at odds with the sacrifices he demanded of them.

“Contrary to what he has always said, Fidel has never renounced capitalist comforts or chosen to live in austerity. Au contraire, his mode de vie is that of a capitalist without any kind of limit,” he writes. “He has never considered that he is obliged by his speech to follow the austere lifestyle of a good revolutionary.”

Sánchez claims he suffered Castro’s ruthlessness first hand when he fell out of favour, was branded a traitor, “thrown in jail like a dog”, tortured and left in a cockroach infested cell, after asking to retire. Released from prison, Sánchez followed the well-worn route of Cuban exiles to America in 2008. “Until the turn in the 1990s I’d never asked too many questions about the workings of the system … that’s the problem with military people … as a good soldier, I did my job and my best and that was enough to make me happy,” he writes.

The book, published on Wednesday, has been written with French journalist Axel Gyldén, a senior reporter at L’Express magazine. Gyldén admits Sánchez has a large axe to grind with Castro, but insists he has checked the Cuban’s story.

“This is the first time someone from Castro’s intimate circle, someone who was part of the system and a first-hand witness to these events, has spoken. It changes the image we have of Fidel Castro and not just how his lifestyle contradicts his words, but of Castro’s psychology and motivations,” Gyldén told the Guardian.

This is not the first time it has been claimed that Castro enjoys great wealth. In 2006 Forbes magazine listed the Cuban leader in its top 10 richest “Kings, Queens and Dictators”, citing unnamed officials who claimed Castro had amassed a fortune by skimming profits from a network of state-owned companies. The Cuban leader vehemently denied the report.

Article continues here:  Fidel Castro Lived Like a King

 

Arturo Lopez-Levy (AKA “Havana Harry”) in HuffPo: Free Alan Gross by Freeing the Cuban Five 2

Arturo Lopez Levy

Arturo Lopez Levy

Alan Gross, an American imprisoned in Cuba since December 3, 2009, recently went on a hunger strike in Havana that lasted for eight days. He did so to protest the U.S. and Cuban governments’ inaction in negotiating a solution to his tragedy.

Gross is the latest victim in a long history of conflicts between Cuba and the United States. An international development expert subcontracted by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Gross entered Cuba as a non-registered foreign agent. His mission was to create a wireless internet satellite network based in Jewish community centers that would circumvent detection by the Cuban government.

Gross was quickly apprehended. But while the U.S. government has vigorously protested his treatment, it has proven unwilling to make the diplomatic overtures — like releasing the Cuban Five — that could secure his release.

Regime Change “Cockamamie”

The USAID program that landed Gross in prison was designed during the George W. Bush administration. It received approval under the Helms-Burton Act, a 1996 law that essentially committed the U.S. government to the overthrow of the Cuban regime.

Gross’ program took an indisputably covert and incendiary approach to democracy promotion, never bothering to obtain the informed consent of the Cuban Jewish community. Like most Cuban religious groups, Jews in Cuba have opposed any attempt to politicize religious organizations by turning them into tools to promote opposition to the regime. The Bush administration’s holy warriors at USAID, however, had aspirations far beyond the temple doors they aimed to overthrow the Cuban government. If that involved getting Cuban Jews in trouble without their consent, then so be it.

Propaganda piece continues here: Havana Harry

Editor’s Note:  Readers of this blog are familiar with Havana Harry’s past service as a regime intelligence officer. So the question becomes – between his spy career, his ties to the highest levels in the Castro regime, and his continued service as a de facto regime spokesman, why hasn’t the Justice Department arrested Lopez-Levy for failure to register as a foreign agent in compliance with the Foreign Agents Registration Act?

The Other Alan Gross Reply

By Tracey Eaton, Along the Malecon

Cuban authorities arrested American development worker Alan Gross in 2009 after his fifth trip to the island to set up a network of Internet hotspots. But Gross evidently wasn’t the only older Jewish man spotted in Cuba carrying out a mission for the U.S. government.

Jeff Kline

Jeff Kline

Jeffrey Robert Kline, founder of the Self Reliance Foundation, went to the island to test cell phones and other wireless devices for a contractor that was working for the State Department, according to a knowledgeable source who asked not to be identified.

Government agencies turned to Kline because he was considered a “maverick,” said the source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “People hire him to do things others won’t touch.” Kline, 64, could not be reached for comment. In February, I wrote about a Cuba project he is doing for the Broadcasting Board of Governors. (See “The incredible disappearing $450,000 contract”).

DAI, an international development company in Bethesda, Md., had hired Gross to travel to Cuba to set up the Internet hotspots. The U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, financed DAI as part of a democracy project aimed at undermining Cuba’s socialist government. Gross went about his business quietly, the knowledgeable source said, but Kline “was being very public” and “was slinging cell phones around.”

According to the source’s version of events: Kline and other Self Reliance Foundation employees had brought into Cuba some $50,000 worth of communications gear, including at least one satellite phone. Cuban authorities confiscated some of the gear and briefly detained one of the employees. The employees heard rumors that Cuban police were looking for a Jewish man who was distributing communication gear. They never found out whether authorities were looking for Kline or for Alan Gross. But they were worried and hurried to get out of the country and return to the U.S.

Feature continues here: The Other Alan Gross

Caracas Holds World’s Airlines as Financial Hostages Reply

Caracas Withholds 4B in Debt Owed to Airlines

Alitalia joins other airlines suspending or reducing flights to Venezuela

By Rafael Romo, Senior Latin American Affairs Editor

(CNN) — First, Air Canada decided to suspend all of its flights to Venezuela in late March. And now, Alitalia is following suit.

In a statement sent to CNN, the Italian airline says that it’s suspending the flights “due to the ongoing critical currency situation in Venezuela,” which is “no longer economically sustainable.

The suspension goes into effect on June 2.

For the last 11 years, Venezuela has tightly controlled all cash flow within its borders. Under the Venezuelan system, all money collected in ticket sales has to be deposited into an account controlled by the government. No funds can be withdrawn from the account without permission from the officials who control it.

The government sets exchange rates for different sectors of the economy, according to priorities also set by officials.

“The bottom line is the airlines are asking for their money; the money that they’ve earned for services provided in transporting passengers from and to Venezuela. Unfortunately, again, the government is holding that money and not releasing it to the airlines,” said Peter Cerda, regional vice president for the International Air Transport Association, which represents airlines around the world.

He calls the situation “an urgent issue.”

In an interview with CNN, Cerda said Alitalia is not the only airline facing problems. In fact, he says, Venezuela owes 24 airlines around the world a combined $4 billion.

Feature continues here:  Caracas Holding Airlines as Financial Hostages

Expelled Spy Josefina Vidal in Talks With Senior State Dept Official 1

Directorate of Intelligence (DI) Officer Josefina Vidal

Directorate of Intelligence (DI) Officer Josefina Vidal

Top Cuban and U.S. Diplomats Meet in Washington

(Radio Havana Cuba) The U.S. Undersecretary of State for Latin America, Roberta Jacobson, has met in Washington with the Director for North America of the Cuban Foreign Ministry, Josefina Vidal.

Neither side has revealed the contents of the meeting, although observers say that the shutting down of consular services at Cuba’s diplomatic representation in Washington might have topped the agenda of the meeting. Since February, Cuba’s diplomatic mission in Washington has been forced to stop all consular procedures after M&T Bank of Buffalo, New York, closed the accounts the mission used to deposit the consular fees it collected. An official statement by Cuban diplomatic representatives said that the island hasn’t been able to find a bank based in the U.S. that assumes its accounts “due to restrictions derived from the economic, commercial and financial blockade imposed by the United States on Cuba.” M&T Bank has never explained why it closed all the accounts it handled for Cuba, including some for Cuba’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations in New York City, as well as other countries. United States and Cuba maintain regular contacts at the technical level to discuss specific issues such as migration and postal services, but are not comparable to Vidal‘s visit to Washington, which is a high-level diplomatic dialogue.

Editor’s Note: Vidal departed Washington in May 2003 after the US declared her husband and 13 other Cuban spy-diplomats Persona Non Grata. Among the seven spies expelled from the Cuban Interest Section was her husband, First Secretary Jose Anselmo Lopez Perera. First Secretary Josefina de la C. Vidal, also known to the US as a Cuban Intelligence Officer, “voluntarily” returned to Cuba.

The husband-wife spy team was chosen for expulsion, in part, because Washington knew Havana historically withdraws the spouse of any expelled spy.

Russia-Cuba Announce Increase in Intelligence Cooperation Reply

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov: 10% of Cuba’s debt to Russia to be reinvested in Cuban economy

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov: 10% of Cuba’s debt to Russia to be reinvested in Cuban economy

Russia, Cuba Sign Memorandum on Interaction

MOSCOW, May 14. /ITAR-TASS/. Russia’s Security Council and Cuba’s national security and defense commission have signed a memorandum on interaction and agreed to set up a joint working group.

On Tuesday, March 13, a Cuban delegation led by special spokesman for the chairman of the Council of Ministers and the State Council Alejandro Castro Espin arrived in the Russian capital and met with leaders of the Foreign Intelligence Service.

The delegation is expected to have meetings with officials of the Federal Security Service (FSB) and the Investigation Committee.

“We have signed a memorandum on interaction between the Security Council and the commission for defense and security of Cuba,” secretary of Russia’s Security Council Nikolai Patrushev said on Wednesday.

It is necessary to create a working commission for exchanging views on security issues in the world, he said.

“The situation in the world is changing rapidly. It is dynamical that is why there will be a possibility to operatively react to it,” Patrushev said.

Espin shared the Russian counterpart’s view.

Russia and Cuba “seek to work out an effective instrument for responding to sensitive issues. The memorandum will help us determine priorities in order to ensure security in both countries”, he said.

Russia Endorses Deal on Space Cooperation With Cuba Reply

Image courtesy of Moscow News

Image courtesy of Moscow News

MOSCOW, May 13 (RIA Novosti) – A commission on legislative drafting has approved the ratification of an agreement with Cuba on cooperation in research and cooperation in the peaceful uses of outer space, the Russian government website said on Tuesday.

“This is a framework agreement, defining necessary principles, norms and conditions for developing bilateral relations in the sphere of space activity, including in protection of intellectual property rights, information exchange and data protection,” the government said in a statement. The commission says the agreement is in the best interests of Russia, including the installation of Russia’s Global Navigation Satellite System (GLONASS) on the territory of the Republic of Cuba.

The document will be considered at government session. The Global Navigation Satellite System, which began operation in 1993, is a Russian equivalent of the US Global Positioning System (GPS). The GLONASS network provides real-time positioning and speed data for surface, sea and airborne objects. Its accuracy is expected to be boosted to one meter (three feet) when used within Russia by the end of the year.

By 2020, Glonass should reach a global positioning accuracy of 60 cm.

The Cabinet of Ministers said the agreement with Cuba needs to be ratified as it contains “other rules” than those defined by the country’s legislation. The first overseas GLONASS ground station for differential correction and monitoring was launched in Brazil in February 2013. Russia plans to build 50 GLONASS stations in several dozen countries across the world.

Last week, the Russian government approved bills to ratify space cooperation agreements with Nicaragua and Vietnam, which, among other things envisage the construction of ground stations for GLONASS.