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December 31, 2015

VENEZUELAN OPPOSITION DENOUNCES "JUDICIAL COUP ATTEMPT"  BEFORE UN, OAS

       
Executive Secretary of Venezuelan opposition coalition Unified Democratic Panel (MUD) Jesús Torrealba sent on Wednesday two letters to the Secretary Generals of the United Nations and the Organization of American States (OAS) Ban Ki-Moon and Luis Almagro, respectively, denouncing that "the pacific" and electoral path the MUD has traveled "is today in danger." "By challenging the people's will expressed at the polls and using the Judiciary colonized by the government party, Chávezism intends today not to recognize the (parliament) election outcome they themselves repeatedly called to respect.

     By breaching the terms, distorting official requests, making justices who are judge and interested party at the same time take decisions, the government intends to contest a group of (opposition) deputies, thus altering the composition the people wanted for the new National Assembly," reads the letter, which was also forwarded to the European Union, the Common Market of the South (Mercosur), the Union of South American Nations (Unasur), and some parliament leaders of the hemisphere, according to a MUD press release. The Electoral Court of the Supreme Tribunal of Justice (TSJ) on Tuesday admitted a new request to contest opposition deputies-elect in Amazonas state during the parliament vote. Moreover, it decided to appoint the reporting justices that are to assess the actions filed by the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) seeking to suspend the effects of the electoral outcome in the involved constituencies.

      The website of the Supreme Tribunal of Justice (TSJ) published on Wednesday the admission of a new action contesting the outcome of the parliament vote held back on December 6 this year in Venezuela. Pro-government candidate and deputy-elect for Amazonas state Nicia Maldonado filed an action seeking the suspension of the effects of the parliament vote in Amazonas state. Consequently, the actions filed by leaders of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) total seven, and they could hit nine opposition deputies-elect. Additionally, the Electoral Court decided to request the National Electoral Council (CNE) the administrative records of the contested votes and it appointed the corresponding reporting justices.

U.S. SAYS $1 BILLION LINKED TO VENEZUELAN ENERGY CORRUPTION SCHEME

      
U.S. authorities have traced over $1 billion to a conspiracy involving a Venezuelan magnate who allegedly paid bribes to obtain contracts from Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA, according to U.S. court papers made public on Monday. The details came a day after the U.S. Justice Department confirmed that authorities had arrested Roberto Rincon, a Venezuelan citizen who is president of Texas-based Tradequip Services & Marine. According to an indictment made public on Monday, Rincon and Venezuelan businessman Abraham Jose Shiera Bastidas conspired to pay bribes to officials to secure contracts from Petroleos de Venezuela S.A. (PDVSA), Venezuela's state-owned oil company. The indictment said five PDVSA officials, whom it did not name, received hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes made principally in the form of wire transfers but also through mortgage payments, airlines tickets and, in one case, whiskey.

     The bribes also included a $14,502 reservation for a PDVSA official at the luxury Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami, the indictment said. According to a court order in the case, from 2009 to 2014, more than $1 billion was traced to the conspiracy, $750 million of which was traced to Rincon, who lives in Texas. To one official alone, Rincon paid $2.5 million in bribes, the order said. The indictment charges that Rincon, 55, and Shiera, 52, violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and conspired to launder money. "Mr. Rincon denies the allegations made against him in the indictment and looks forward to the opportunity to challenge the government's case," said Samuel Louis, his lawyer. A lawyer for Shiera, who resides in Florida, did not respond to a request for comment. Shiera is the manager of Vertix Instrumentos, a Venezuelan supplier to the oil sector. Both men were arrested on Dec. 16 and have been held without bail.

     In an order by U.S. Magistrate Judge Nancy Johnson in Houston detailing why she on Saturday denied Rincon bail, she noted Rincon has a "close personal friendship" with retired Venezuelan General Hugo Carvajal. Carvajal, Venezuela's former military intelligence chief, was arrested in 2014 in Aruba on U.S. drug trafficking charges, but Aruba authorities declined to extradite him. Carvajal had been arrested on Rincon's privately-owned airplane, according to Johnson's order. It remains unclear if the case against Rincon and Shiera relates to Tradequip Services & Marine, which describes itself as an oil field supply company. The firm on its website lists PDVSA as a client, and it is registered on Venezuela's national contractors registry. Tradequip Services & Marine on Monday declined comment. PDVSA did not respond toan email seeking comment. The case is U.S. v. Rincon-Fernandez, U.S. District Court, Southern District of Texas, No. 15-cr-654.

IRANIAN ROCKET PASSES WITHIN 1,500 YARDS OF U.S. AIRCRAFT CARRIER

    
Cmdr. Kyle Raines, a U.S. Central Command spokesman, said in a statement to the Associated Press early Wednesday that Iranian Revolutionary Guard naval vessels fired "several unguided rockets" after giving only 23 minutes' notice over maritime radio that a live-fire exercise would be carried out. The incident was first reported by NBC News. Raines described the Iranian fleet's actions as "highly provocative". "Firing weapons so close to passing coalition ships and commercial traffic within an internationally recognized maritime traffic lane is unsafe, unprofessional and inconsistent with international maritime law," the spokesman said.

      While the United States has complained previously about other Iranian war games and maneuvers there, Saturday's incident comes after a series of weapons tests and other moves by Tehran following this past summer's nuclear deal. In the time since, Iran has conducted missile tests criticized by the U.S., as well as aired footage on state television of an underground missile base. Iran also sank a replica of a U.S. aircraft carrier in February near the strait. It seized a Marshall Islands-flagged cargo ship and later released it in May after earlier surrounding U.S.-flagged cargo ship transiting the strait.

     In addition to the Truman, the destroyer USS Bulkeley and French frigate FS Provence were in the area, as was commercial sea traffic. A U.S. military official told The Hill newspaper that the Iranian ships approached the Truman and other vessels before announcing it was setting the live-fire exercise in motion and requesting nearby vessels to keep clear. Minutes later, the Iranians repeated the warning and the rockets were launched. It was not immediately clear how many projectiles were fired. The Hill reported the ships departed the area after the launches.  Officials said the rockets traveled in a direction taking them away from the Truman and other shipping traffic in the strait, which conncts the Persian Gulf to the Arabian Sea and is the route for nearly a third of all oil traded by sea. The Truman recently arrived in the Persian Gulf to provide a launching point for airstrikes against the ISIS terror group in Iraq and Syria. It replaces the USS Theodore Roosevelt, which departed the Middle East this past October. The French aircraft carrier Charles De Gaulle is also in the Gulf to perform similar functions.

December 30, 2015

CENTRAL AMERICAN NATIONS ANNOUNCE DEAL ON CUBAN MIGRANTS

        Central American nations have reached a deal to let the first of thousands of stranded Cuban migrants continue their journey north toward the United States next month, officials said Monday. The humanitarian transfer will airlift an unspecified number of Cubans the first week of January from Costa Rica to El Salvador, from where they will continue by bus toward Mexico, Costa Rica's Foreign Ministry said in a statement. The Guatemalan government, which hosted a diplomatic meeting earlier in the day to consider the issue, described it as a "pilot" program and said a work group has been tasked with coordinating logistics.

     The two governments did not immediately release further details, citing some nations' desire for discretion on what has become a diplomatic flashpoint between Costa Rica and neighboring Nicaragua. On Sunday, Pope Francis called for their plight to be resolved. Costa Rican Foreign Minister Manuel Gonzalez said the measure will be available only to Cubans who are already in Costa Rica. Ministry spokeswoman Melissa Duran told The Associated Press it will be up to the migrants to pay the costs of their travel, but did not give more specifics.

     On Dec. 18, Costa Rica stopped issuing transit visas for Cuban migrants and announced that any who arrived after that without a visa would be deported. Cuba has seen a spike in outward migration in the year since it and Washington announced they would re-establish diplomatic ties after more than five decades of open hostility. Many Cuban migrants say they chose now to emigrate out of fear that detente could bring about an end to the U.S. policies that benefit them — although U.S. officials say no change is in the works. Cuba and its close ally Nicaragua argue that the U.S. policies toward Cubans encourage them to attempt dangerous migratory routes and cause a brain drain on the island.

OPPOSITION TO FILE COMPLAINT AGAINST MADURO OVER COLOMBIA BORDER CLOSING

      
Opposition lawmakers plan to file a complaint against President Nicolas Maduro, alleging "abuse of power" for keeping Venezuela's border with Colombia closed despite the expiration earlier this month of the decree imposing a state of emergency on the border, Congressman Walter Marquez said. The complaint requests "the trial of Nicolas Maduro ... because the decree extending the state of exception in the frontier municipal areas expired on Dec. 18, thus leaving no legal or constitutional authority for keeping the border closed," Marquez said in a statement. The complaint was initially going to be filed on Monday with prosecutors in the western state of Tachira, located on the border with Colombia, but the move was postponed by a day, Marquez told EFE.

     In August, Maduro ordered a major border crossing closed, citing the need to step up the battle against smugglers and alleged paramilitary gangs. The president later expanded the border closing to the states of Zulia, Apure and Amazonas, saying that the measure would be lifted when the two nations agreed on a new border policy to end criminal activities along the 2,219-kilometer (1,376-mile) frontier. Venezuelan authorities have detained at least 36 suspected Colombian militiamen, while 250 people, including 66 soldiers and 28 police officers, are reported to be under arrest in Tachira.

     The first of the decrees expired on Oct. 19 and was extended for another 60 days by authorities. The extension, according to the opposition, should have ended on Dec. 18 at midnight. Toner said the United States has some concerns about Jaysh al Islam’s actions in Syria, but that it participated in a conference of rebel groups, supported a political process and fought against the Islamic State group. “I think we would agree that it doesn’t send the most constructive message to carry out a strike like that,” Toner said. “And as I said, it complicates those efforts. It is our hope that these strikes don’t reverse any progress that we’ve made.”

US MILITARY: ISIS LEADER LINKED TO PARIS ATTACK KILLED IN SYRIA

    
The U.S. military says an Islamic State (IS) leader withdirect links to the alleged ringleader of last month'sterrorist attacks in Paris was killed in a coalition airstrike in Syria. A coalition spokesman, Colonel Steve Warren, said in a news briefing Tuesday that Charaffe al-Mouadan was killed last week on December 24. He said Mouadan had ties to Abdelhamid Abaaoud, believed to be the leader of the cell that coordinated the Paris attacks, which left at least 130 people dead. Abaaoud was killed in a police raid a few days after the on November 13 Paris attacks. An undated photograph of a man described as Abdelhamid Abaaoud that was published in the Islamic State's online magazine Dabiq and posted on a social media website.

    Warren said Mouadan was "actively planning additional attacks against the West," but did not specify if he was targeting the U.S. or Europe or both.bWarren noted that Mouadan was among a total of 10 Islamic State "leadership figures" who have been killed in coalition airstrikes in the past month. They include another IS figure who had "links" to the Paris terror network and a Bangladeshi man educated in Britain who was allegedly a hacker for Islamic State. "As long as ISIL (IS) external attack planners are operating, the U.S. military will hunt them and kill them," he said. In another development in Syria, a U.S.-backed alliance of Kurdish and Arab rebels seized a key dam on the Euphrates River from Islamic State fighters, Warren confirmed. He said the Syrian Democratic Forces ((SDF)) captured the Tishreen Dam late Saturday after intense clashes with ISIS.

    The dam, held by Islamic State since last year, helps generate electricity for large parts of northern Aleppo province. Aleppo is part of a key IS logistics route. Meanwhile, the United States said the recent killing of a top Syrian rebelleader complicates efforts to bring a cease-fire and political resolution to the country’s nearly five-year conflict. Zahran Alloush, the head of a group called Jaysh al Islam, died in an airstrike Friday that was claimed by Syrian government forces. On Monday, U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the United States has some concerns about Jaysh al Islam’s actions in Syria, but that it participated in a conference of rebel groups, supported a political process and fought against the Islamic State group. “I think we would agree that it doesn’t send the most constructive message to carry out a strike like that,” Toner said. “And as I said, it complicates those efforts. It is our hope that these strikes don’t reverse any progress that we’ve made.

December 29, 2015

CHICAGO MAYO RAHN EMANUEL IS RETURNING TO HIS TROUBLED CITY FROM HIS CUBAN VACATION PARADISE

        Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s spokeswoman announced he is returning from the sun and fun as pressure mounted on Chicago’s first Jewish mayor to resign after police shot and killed two black citizens over the weekend — including a mom of five. “While Mayor Emanuel has been in constant contact with his staff and Interim Superintendent (John) Escalante, he is cutting his family trip short so that he can continue the ongoing work of restoring accountability and trust in the Chicago Police Department,” said Kelley Quinn. Emanuel is set to arrive back in Chicago on Tuesday afternoon, she said.

     The new killings of African-Americans puts further scrutiny on the nation’s third-largest police force, which is already under federal investigation over its use of deadly force. One victim’s family is expected to seek video footage of the shootings, which occurred early on Saturday, in an attempt to get a clearer picture of what happened, according to its attorney. Both families have said Emanuel has failed them. The release of a Chicago police video last month of the fatal shooting of a black teenager, which had been withheld for more than a year, led to the resignation of the city’s police chief and the start of a U.S. Department of Justice probe into whether the city’s police use lethal force too often, especially against minorities.

     High-profile killings of black men by police officers since mid-2014 have triggered waves of protest, including in Chicago, and fueled a civil rights movement under the name Black Lives Matter. The latest police shootings killed Bettie Jones, 55, and college student Quintonio LeGrier, 19. Family members said police were called after LeGrier, who hadmental health issues, threatened his father with a metal baseball bat. Jones, who lived in a first-floor apartment of the building, was shot through the door, said her cousin Evelyn Glover. The embattled mayor issued a statement on Sunday calling for a review of the police Crisis Intervention Team and better guidance for officers when dealing with mental health cases. “There are serious questions about yesterday’s shootings that must be answered in full by the Independent Police Review Authority’s investigation,” his statement said.

LATINOS REJECT HILLARY CLINTON CAMPAIGN SAYING: "YOU'RE NOT MY GRANDMA"

      
Being a grandmother was always one of Hillary Clinton’s dreams, maybe even more so than being president of the United States. She has brought both dreams together more than once. In order to show her more human side, the Democratic candidate to the White House has not hesitated to proclaim her love and concern for her granddaughter Charlotte, who is a little over one year old, during her campaigning. But many US Hispanics feel that Clinton has gone too far this time. When her daughter Chelsea announced earlier this week that the candidate would be a grandma for the second time, her team attempted to attract the Latino vote by comparing Hillary Clinton to Hispanic “abuelitas.”

     Given the degree of rejection expressed on social media, it seems clear that Hispanics do not appreciate people using their abuelitas for campaigning purposes. “Seven ways in which Hillary Clinton is like your abuela,” was the original title of a December 21 post on the nominee’s campaign blog. The post, which has since been slightly modified, was written by a Hispanic aide to Clinton’s campaign, and includes another word that is key to Hispanics in these times of aggressive anti-immigrant rhetoric: “respect.” “She isn't afraid to talk about the importance of el respeto,” reads the first line. The text also highlights campaign moments in which the former first lady defended Hispanics from the insults voiced by Republican candidate Donald Trump, by saying “Basta. Enough.”

     Reaction on the internet was swift, but not of the kind that Clinton’s team was expecting. The hashtag #notmyabuela at times became a trending topic on Twitter. “Hilary is #NotMyAbuela because I was separated by mine by many miles, and a militarized border,” wrote one user. “Mi abuela wouldn't try to buy Latin@ votes by using Spanish words & trying to seem relatble [sic] to struggles she'll never know,” wrote Christian Vasquez, whose Twitter account is followed by US President Barack Obama. Latino Rebels, an analysis website with a humorous take on Latino reality in the US, got serious in its call for Clinton to end this campaign strategy.

JULIO BORGES DEMANDS CLEAR RULES AND CONSENSUS IN OPPOSITION COALITION

    
Leader of Venezuelan opposition Primero Justicia (Justice First) party Julio Borges demanded equality and rotation for all the political parties during the next five legislative years of the new National Assembly (AN)

     The national coordinator of the Venezuelan opposition Primero Justicia (Justice First) party Julio Borges requested "clear rules and consensus to build the internal governance" of the policy of the parliament group of opposition coalition Unified Democratic Party (MUD) during the next five legislative years of the new National Assembly (AN) to be installed on January 5, 2016. In Borges' words, this issue is "delicate" and will be discussed on Monday and Tuesday during three MUD meetings previously convened.

     "The most important thing is that MUD may strengthen to face the country's issues with clear game rules, which institutionalize the MUD," Borges said in response to information about the election of the new AN board and the designation of legislative committees. "We are trying to develop a method that lasts the five years of legislative government; (an) egalitarian and temporary (government) for everyone, which observes the proportionality and importance of the political groups. (A government) where everyone is represented," the opposition leader argued.

December 28, 2015

POPE FRANCIS URGES IMMEDIATE HELP FOR CUBAN MIGRANTS STRANDED IN CENTRAL AMERICA

        Pope Francis urged Central American governments on Sunday to find an urgent solution to help thousands of U.S.-bound Cuban migrants stranded on the border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Nicaragua has refused to let the growing number of Cubans trying to reach the United States who have become stuck in Costa Rica pass through its territory. About 5,000 Cubans are estimated to be on the border.

     Speaking from his window overlooking St. Peter's Square to ten of thousands of people gathered for his Sunday blessing, Francis said many of those stranded were victims of human trafficking. "I ask the countries of the region to generously resume efforts to find a quick solution to this humanitarian drama," he said. Central America and Mexico have seen a surge in migrants from the Communist-ruled island as the process of a detente between Washington and Havana raises the prospect that current U.S. asylum rights for Cubans may soon end.

     Last week the Nicaraguan government proposed that the U.S. government organize an airlift to take the migrants directly from Costa Rica to the United States. The Costa Rican government has tried to convince both Belize and Guatemala to allow the Cubans passage to reach Mexico.. The plight of migrants is expected to be a main topic of Francis' trip in February to Mexico, where he will say Mass at Ciudad Juarez within meters of the border with Texas.. Earlier on Sunday, Francis said Mass in St. Peter's Basilica for families in Rome marking the Roman Catholic Church's jubilee year.

IRAQI ARMY DECLARES FIRST MAJOR VICTORY OVER ISIS  IN RAMADI

      
Iraq's army declared victory over Islamic State fighters in a provincial capital west of Baghdad on Sunday, the first major triumph for the U.S.-trained force since it collapsed in the face of an assault by the militants 18 months ago. The capture of Ramadi, capital of mainly Sunni-Muslim Anbar province in the Euphrates River valley west of the capital, deprives Islamic State militants of their biggest prize of 2015. The fighters seized it in May after government troops fled in a defeat which prompted Washington to take a hard look at strategy in its ongoing air war against the militants. After encircling the city for weeks, the Iraqi military launched a campaign to retake it last week, and made a final push to seize the central administration complex on Sunday.

    "By controlling the complex this means that we have defeated them in Ramadi," said Sabah al-Numani, a spokesman for the force leading the fight on the government side. "The next step is to clear pockets that could exist here or there in the city." State television broadcast footage of troops, Humvee vehicles and tanks advancing through Ramadi streets amid piles of rubble and collapsed houses. Some districts appeared to have been completely destroyed by the advance. A U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the U.S.-led campaign against Islamic State was unable to confirm at this point whether the militants had been cleared out of the government complex.

     Television also showed nighttime celebrations in mainly Shi'ite cities south of Baghdad for the victory in Anbar, with people dancing in the streets and waving Iraqi flags from cars. Officials did not give any immediate death tolls for the battle. Ramadi was the first major city recaptured by the army itself, without relying on the militias, who were kept off the battlefield to avoid sectarian tension with the mainly Sunni population. The government, led by a Shi'ite Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, said Ramadi would be handed over to local police and a Sunni tribal force once it was secured, a measure meant to win over the community to the fight against Islamic State. "We have trained hundreds of tribal fighters, their role will be holding the ground," said Brigadier-General Yahya Rasool, spokesman for the joint operations command. "Seeing their own tribes responsible for security will be a relief for the civilians" and will help convince those who have been displaced to return to the city, he added.

DIRECT CHINA-CUBA AIR SERVICE BEGINS

    
The first direct flight between China and Cuba took off on Sunday from the international airport in Beijing for Havana, with state-owned carrier Air China aiming to promote Chinese tourism in Latin America and the Caribbean. The route is the first direct one linking China, the world’s second-largest economy, and the Caribbean, as well as the first route between the Asian nation and Latin America operated by an Asian airline. The existing flights from China to Mexico and Brazil are operated by foreign carriers.

     The Boeing 777 departed at 1:45 p.m. Beijing time (0545 GMT) and is scheduled to arrive at 8:15 Havana time (0115 GMT on Monday). The route requires 19½ hours of flying time, with a stopover for refueling scheduled in Montreal. Officials expect the route to boost not just tourism between China and Cuba, but travel from the Asian nation to all of Latin America, a region that is rarely visited by the growing number of Chinese tourists. China became the world’s top source of tourists in 2014, but Chinese tourists tend to mainly visit Europe and Southeast Asia.

      People in China are familiar with Cuba and the countries have had friendly political and cultural relations for decades. Cuba and China have a “long-running friendship” and the flight will draw more “tourists and Chinese businessmen” to the island, Cuban Ambassador to China Alberto Jesus Fernando Silva said during a ceremony organized by Cuban diplomats and Air China at the Beijing airport before the plane’s departure. Tourist arrivals from China rose 27 percent in Cuba in the past year, the ambassador said. The direct flight will help “promote links with Cuba and the Caribbean,” Air China executive Fan Cheng said. Cuba was the first country in Latin America to establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China, Fan said.
 

December 25, 2015

MADURO GOVERNMENT BEGINS TO PURGE ITS PUBLIC AGENCIES OF WORKERS WHO VOTED FOR THE OPPOSITION

       THE Venezuelan government has begun to purge its public agencies of workers who voted for the opposition in the December 6 election, which ended a 16-year socialist streak in the legislature. At least one agency has posted a list of the names of those fired, calling them “traitors.” “Traitors … Out of Our Institution,” read a list of names posted before the Venezuelan Food Production and Distribution Agency, notifying those who worked at the agency but voted for the anti-socialist opposition that they were fired. The list included dozens of names, and the decision to publicly post their names appeared intended to publicly shame the workers, as well as goad socialist loyalists into harassing the dismissed workers.

    The poster with the names of the fired “traitors” first appeared in the local newspaper Correo del Caroni. “Those who are not [traitors], prove us wrong … and those that are left, we are coming for you,” reads the bottom of the list. While the most aggressive government revenge move against opposition voters so far, it appears not to be the only one. According to the Diario Las Americas, workers at several other government agencies have not yet been fired, but report “harassment, threats of firing, and labor discrimination for political reasons following the December 6 election.” The newspaper names the Venezuelan Education Agency, the Foundation for Children, and at least one mayoral office as having reported problems of discrimination towards anti-socialist voters.

     The Venezuelan opposition won the December 6 election decisively, taking 109 seats to the Socialist Party (PSUV)’s 55. President Nicolás Maduro has vowed to “recognize these adverse results, and accept them and tell our Venezuela that the Constitution and democracy has triumphed.” He has since taken measures that can be interpreted as threatening any opposition force that may seek to take him out of power. On Tuesday, for example, he ordered the retreat of military personnel from civilian public service positions, so as to place them in full “active duty.” The move follows a speech on Sunday in which Maduro asserted that Venezuela was engaged in “unconventional warfare” and warned, “Men and women, prepare to defend the nation.” He added, “We will not allow the right and the bourgeoisie, from their newfound positions of power, to surrender our sovereignty, independence, and the justice we have constructed during these years of sacrifice.” He explicitly condemned the United States, once again, for waging “economic war” against socialism.

GUATEMALA DISPUTES STRANDED CUBANS NEED HUMANITARIAN ACCESS 

      
Guatemala on Wednesday rejected an argument by Costa Rica that thousands of stranded US-bound Cuban migrants should be allowed to travel through Central America on humanitarian grounds. Vice President Alfonso Fuentes told a news conference that "they are not politically persecuted people, just people who want to join their families in the United States or who are looking for a better economic life."

      His characterization was another blow to efforts by Costa Rica to persuade its Central American neighbors to take in some 5,000 to 7,000 Cubans stranded on its territory and permit them to continue their journey to the US. The Cubans have been stuck in Costa Rica since mid-November, when Nicaragua closed its border to them. Costa Rica has been so frustrated with the impasse it has ceased issuing visas to Cubans and warned it will start deporting any new arrivals back to Cuba. Last week it also suspended its political participation in the Central American Integration System, a regional body meant to promote cooperation.

      Some Central American countries including Guatemala are resentful of the Cubans' easy access to the United States, which has a Cold War-era policy of accepting them even as it makes it very difficult for citizens of other Latin American countries to enter. On Tuesday, migration officials from the foreign ministries from Central America, the United States, Mexico, Colombia and Ecuador held a meeting in Mexico City to discuss the problem, but no solution was found. Costa Rican Foreign Minister Manuel Gonzalez said after the meeting that "unfortunately the Guatemalan position was unchanged" from previous discussions. Gonzalez said yet another meeting was scheduled for next Monday "in Guatemala or again in Mexico."

SPAIN SOCIALISTS REJECT RAJOY OR PP-LED GOVERNMENT

    
SPanish Socialist leader Pedro Sanchez has said he will not support a government led by acting Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy or his conservative Popular Party (PP). After a brief meeting with the prime minister, Sanchez insisted Spain needed a change of government. "No to Rajoy means yes to change," he said, adding that he did not want fresh elections. The Popular Party won Sunday's vote but fell well short of securing a majority. For decades the Socialists and PP have alternated in government but the rise of two new parties, the left-wing Podemos (We Can) and liberal Ciudadanos (Citizens), has left Spanish politics fragmented.

     Image copyrightEPAImage captionPedro Sanchez told reporters that he saw fresh elections as a last resort
The PP picked up 123 seats - far short of the 176 minimum needed to govern alone - while the Socialists (PSOE) won 90 seats, Podemos 69 and Citizens 40. Shortly before Sanchez went into his meeting with the acting prime minister at Madrid's Moncloa Palace, Ciudadanos leader Albert Rivera called for a pact between the three parties. He said they would exclude Podemos, "which wants to break Spain up". Podemos, unlike the others, backs the Catalan nationalists' call for a referendum on independence from Spain. Rajoy is also firmly opposed to any Catalan referendum on independence, while the Socialists say they are prepared to discuss constitutional reform.

     Rajoy did not comment publicly after the talks, which were the first to take place since the 20 December election and were described as barely 40 minutes in length.
But the Socialist leader was clear: "The PSOE will not support the continuity of Rajoy and the PP because the people voted for change." Rajoy's deputy, 44-year-old Soraya Saenz de Santamaria, has emerged as a powerful figure in the PP but Mr Sanchez's remarks appeared to rule out any compromise involving her becoming prime minister. Saenz de Santamaria took part in the first two election debates on TV, after Mr Rajoy decided not to take part. When Spain's parliament reconvenes in January, King Felipe VI will ask a party leader to form a government and MPs will vote on his nomination. If they fail to elect a government within two months then fresh elections will follow. The election result on Sunday was seen as a rejection of traditional Spanish politics, dominated by the PP and PSOE since the nationalist dictator Francisco Franco died in 1975.

December 24, 2015

CUBA ONE YEAR AFTER PRESIDENT OBAMA'S OLIVE BRANCH

       El Wall Street Journal published today states that thousands of political arrests, migrants flee Cuba and and Russia wants in. This month marks the first anniversary of President Obama’s unilateral rapprochement with Cuba. Upon making the Dec. 17 announcement, the Obama administration immediately moved to ease restrictions on American travel to the island and, by extension, boost revenues for the owners of its tourist industry: the Cuban military, the paper said. In May the U.S. removed Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism, even though the dictator Gen. Raúl Castro harbors known terrorists, including the U.S. fugitive Joanne Chesimard, once a member of the now defunct Black Liberation Army and a convicted cop-killer.

     In August the U.S. reopened an embassy in Havana. Last week it announced a bilateral agreement to restore direct flights between the U.S. and Cuba. Cuba’s dissidents have been hard hit. Days after the new U.S. policy was announced, Danilo Maldonado, the Cuban performance artist known as El Sexto, was arrested for mocking the Castros. He spent 10 months in jail, and Amnesty International named him a prisoner of conscience. The Havana-based Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation documented 7,686 political arrests in 2015 through Nov. 30. On that day Mr. Maldonado summarized the effects of the Obama détente: “There have been no positive changes. The U.S. has given away too much at the normalization talks, and that has let Cuba continue its repression.”

      Perhaps capitalists are not all that important when Russia is itching to get back into Cuba in a big way. In 2014 Russian President Vladimir Putin forgave $32 billion in Cuban debt to the Soviet Union. Then he converted the remaining $3.5 billion due Moscow into a line of credit for energy and industrial projects on the island. Obama agrees with Raúl that the U.S. should lift the embargo. But Cuba can already buy food and medicine from the U.S. and, practically speaking, there are few limits on American travel, though such travel is disguised as “cultural exchange.” What’s left of the embargo is a ban on access to bank credit, and legal claims for almost $8 billion in property stolen by the revolution. The Castros have a solution to the latter. They claim the embargo cost Cuba over $100 billion since 1959, so the U.S. actually owes them

OUTGOING VENEZUELAN PARLIAMENT INITIATES PROCEDURE TO CHOOSE JUDGES 

      
The outgoing Venezuelan Parliament, with a ruling party majority, voted Tuesday to nominate judges to the country's Supreme Court, or TSJ, which the opposition termed as unconstitutional as the country is just days away from ushering in a new parliament with opposition majority. In an extraordinary session, the ruling party deputies, or Chavistas, voted to nominate 13 judges and 22 substitutes, but called for another three sessions after failing to obtain the two-thirds majority needed for approval.

     The speaker of the outgoing Parliament, Diosdado Cabello, said if the opposition rejects the proposal it will require a fourth session where judges can be nominated with a simple majority, achieved with a ruling side vote and added another voting session will be convened Wednesday at 9 a.m. "We are now extending a formal invitation to those nominated to be sworn-in as judges," said Cabello, at the end of the first of four sessions to be held before the new parliament takes over on Jan. 5. Reacting to opposition allegations of unconstitutionality of the process, ruling party deputy Elvis Amoroso, who proposed the measure, asserted Chavismo will never violate the Magna Carta.

      "We are completely in accordance with the law, fully adhering to legal norms...you may challenge it before the TSJ," said Amoroso. Opposition deputy Alfonso Marquina alleged the procedure to name judges is filled with irregularities and fraudulent nominations, including that of Amoroso who nominated himself in spite of being a deputy. He also pointed out the constitutional mandate, which provides for a period of 15 days to challenge nominations, was not complied with, as the list of aspirants was disclosed on Dec. 8, two days after the legislative elections, which the ruling party lost. In the Dec. 6 parliamentary elections, the opposition won 112 seats as compared to Chavismo's 55 seats, a "qualified" victory that allows it to make laws and also dismiss judges for serious misconduct.

AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL:  RUSSIAN AIR STRIKES IN SYRIA TREATED AS WAR CRIMES

    
Amnesty International accused the Russian troops of the murder of hundreds of civilians in Syria and the use of cluster ammunition and unguided air-to-surface missiles in living quarters. The report focuses on six air strikes that took place in Syrian provinces of Homs, Idlib and Aleppo from September through November 2015. By the estimates of Amnesty International, at least 200 peaceful citizens were killed during the air strikes. “Some Russian air strikes appear to have directly attacked civilians or civilian objects by striking residential areas with no evident military target and even medical facilities, resulting in deaths and injuries to civilians”, said Phillip Luther, Middle East and North Africa Director at Amnesty International. “These strikes may be considered as war crimes”.

    The report noted that the cause of such strikes could be a mistake or unwillingness of the Russian pilots to avoid or at least minimize the damage to civilians and the civilian infrastructure. The report also includes references to missile and bombs hitting living quarters, a military hospital, a market and a mosque. According to the Amnesty International data, a mosque in Idlib province was destroyed. The Russian Defense Ministry denied that and provided an aerial photograph with a mosque on it. Amnesty International said it was a different mosque. Earlier, members of Human Rights Watch came up with alike accusations against Russia. The organization’s report included references to the chaotic nature of Russian air strikes, as well as the extended use of cluster ammunition which contravenes the respective UN resolution on the Syrian conflict.

     Earlier this week, Dmitry Peskov, Press Secretary of Russian President Vladimir Putin, commented on the accusations of the use of cluster ammunition in Syria. According to him, Russia’s Air Force operation in Syria is being conducted “in strict accordance with the norms of international law”. The use of cluster ammunition is prohibited by the Convention on Cluster Munitions, the international treaty that prohibits the use, transfer and stockpile of cluster bombs, a type of explosive weapon which scatters submunitions over an area. The document was adopted in May 2008 in Dublin. It entered into force in August 2010, six months after it was ratified by 30 states. As of October 2015, 108 states have signed the treaty and 98 have ratified it or acceded to it. The world’s leading producers of such ammunition – Russia, the USA and China – didn’t sign the agreement. The civil war in Syria between the government forces led by President Bashaar al-Assad and the armed opposition is underway since 2011. Since last year, ISIS militants have been taking active part in the conflict; they captured large areas in northwestern regions of the country. By the request of al-Assad, in September 2015, Russia sent an Air Force wing to Syria, starting a military campaign against the ISIL.

December 23, 2015

VENEZUELA LEFTIST CHALLENGE ELECTION OF 22 OPPOSITION LAWMAKERS

       The leftist party of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro Tuesday challenged the election of 22 opposition lawmakers in this month's landmark polls, according to opposition leaders who slammed a "procedural coup." The opposition coalition MUD won a resounding victory in the December 6 legislative vote, ending 16 years of leftist majority in the oil-rich but troubled nation.

      Jesus Torrealba, spokesman for the MUD, told a press conference that Maduro's United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) had filed a challenge against 22 incoming deputies before the Supreme Court. "These are not representatives of the MUD, they are representatives of the people," Torrealba said of the lawmakers targeted. With 112 of 167 seats in the new National Assembly, the opposition would be able to call a referendum, launch constitutional reforms, replace senior judges and even take measures to try to depose Maduro.

      But if the challenge goes ahead it could prevent the lawmakers concerned from being sworn in as planned on January 5, leaving the opposition short of the crucial two-thirds majority. "We say without hesitation that what we are facing here is an attempted procedural coup against the will of the people expressed clearly and decisively on December 6," Torrealba said. He said he had informed the Organization of American States and the European Union of the development. Analysts have warned of a tough political struggle ahead after Venezuela's election, which dealt a dramatic blow to Maduro and the "revolution" launched in 1999 by his late predecessor Hugo Chavez.

HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH ENDORSES MACRI'S WORDS ON VENEZUELA 

      
Argentinean President Mauricio Macri took the floor at the Mercosur meeting held on Monday in Asunción, Paraguay, and urged Venezuela to "free political prisoners" Executive Director of the Americas Division of non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch (HRW), José Miguel Vivanco, asserted on Monday that the statements made by Argentinean President Mauricio Macri about human rights in Venezuela at the Common Market of the South (Mercosur) meeting should be upheld by all member countries of Mercosur.

      "It would be in the best interest of all Venezuelans for other leaders to echo Macri's concerns and call on the Maduro administration to end its assault on judicial independence and fundamental freedoms," Vicanco stressed in a communiqué, as reported by Efe. Macri took the floor at the Mercosur meeting held on Monday in Asunción, Paraguay, and urged Venezuela to "free political prisoners," saying "there can be no space for political persecution based on ideological reasons, nor to illegitimately detain [individuals] for thinking differently." Macri told the Venezuelan President: "Mr. Maduro, I only see Venezuelan citizens where you see the enemy. It is obvious that you and I see different things in different ways. For example, where you see enemies that you want to kill, I see upset Venezuelans demanding changes to your government.

      Where you see a conspiracy, I see how the 22-year-old Génesis Carmona is being taken on a motorcycle to a hospital, agonizing after being shot right in the face. And I don’t see you. I didn’t see you in the funeral ceremonies of those innocent people. Where you see fascist people protesting, I see ordinary people, I see common persons, I see human beings at odds with you. They’re doing their best; they are people; they are also the true people of Venezuela; or perhaps the true people of Venezuela to you are only the ones who applaud your actions, while others who don’t are the enemy? I also see what you seem not to be seeing. I see terrifying motorcycles belonging to paramilitary groups shooting at unarmed civilians at night, even shooting at their houses and apartments, as seen in videos on YouTube.
 

MUD WILL CONTEST THE APPOINTMENT OF 12 VACANT POSTS IN THE SUPREME COURT

    
The Venezuelan government will lose its parliamentary majority on January 5 when opposition members, who jointly won an absolute majority in the December 6 legislative elections, take over. The Maduro administration is determined to undercut the opposition and keep control of other public institutions by taking advantage of every minute of its current term. By law, two-thirds of the National Assembly must approve the appointment of each new Supreme Court member. Given that the government lacks this much leverage in the chamber and has been locked in a 17-year political battle with the opposition, the two sides are not likely to reach an agreement. If the judges do not get enough votes in the first three sessions, Venezuelan law enables parliament to appoint the judges who receive three fifths of the vote in the fourth round.

     The Maduro regime holds the 99 deputies necessary to meet this requirement. That last voting session will likely take place on Wednesday afternoon, two days before Christmas. Although the opposition has denounced this last-minute appointment of new justices to replace those whose tenures expired, it has seemed more focused on its agenda for next year. The Unity Roundtable (MUD), the winning opposition coalition, has promised to pass legislation to release political prisoners, an initiative the regime has staunchly opposed. But at the last minute, a group of former judges and lawyers with ties to the opposition contested the possible appointment of a list of 382 candidates to the 12 vacant posts, alleging that they were chosen because of their association with the regime and with members of the nominating committee and did not fulfill established requirements.

      René Molina, an attorney and former court inspector, told EL PAÍS that one of the candidates, the chavista deputy Elvis Amoroso, is also the father of a member of the nominating committee. “So, they have become judge and jury.” The group of lawyers, which includes former judges Jorge Rosell and Pedro Rondón Haaz, says the National Assembly will not be able to swear in the new justices on December 23 because the appeals case will still be open until Christmas Eve. “We are creating the conditions so that these appointments cannot be validated by the next plenary session,” Molina said. The Maduro administration accepted a tough election defeat on December 6 but not its consequences. This call to extraordinary assembly sessions is another attempt to undercut those results.

December 22, 2015

DEATH OF OSCAR MARTINEZ ROIG, A GREAT CUBAN FREEDOM FIGHTER

       Oscar Martínez Roig, a tireless fighter for freedom and democracy in Cuba died in Miami, FL on December 19, 2015. Martinez Roig was a pioneer in both, the Assault Brigade 2506 and the Cuban-American Military Council (CAMCO). During the landing at Bay of Pigs in 19XX, Martinez Roig courageously served as Chief Pilot / Tower Control Commander.

     Subsequently, one of his major achievements was in founding in 1971 the Post of Foreign Wars (VFW) of the United States of America, 10212, José Martí. " After his retirement Martínez Roig helped all Cuban American veterans and their families who were seeking assistance from the US Department of Veteran Affairs.

     Upon the creation of CAMCO in 1997, Martínez Roig served in an outstanding manner as the Executive Director of the Personnel Department, and Veterans Affairs—a role in which he was responsible for ensuring the classification and assignment of all CAMCO members.    At a moment that we know is so painful for his wife and their children, CAMCO wishes to extend to the family its deepest condolences for the loss of our unforgettable conrade-in-arms Oscar Martínez Roig.

PRESIDENT MACRI ASKS FOR RELEASE OF LEOPOLDO LOPEZ  ***   GDA SELECTS LOPEZ AS LATIN AMERICAN PERSON OF 2015

      
I want to request here, expressly, before the Heads of State of Mercosur, for prompt release of political prisoners in Venezuela, because in the Member States no room should be made for political persecution for ideological reasons or for thinking otherwise," Macri said.

     As quoted by Efe, Macri claimed that his government "is pleased to see that Venezuela took on" the results of the parliament vote of December 6, where the opposition got a landslide victory. At the same time, he recommended the opposition "prudence after the election." Macri noted, however, that his "view of democracy is not only going to the polls, but a way of living, a pact of cohabitation." The Argentinean president, who made his debut in the international arena, made his remarks before Venezuelan Minister of Foreign Affairs Delcy Rodríguez. The minister attended the meeting instead of President Nicolás Maduro, who was not present for "internal commitments," as reported by Paraguay, the host country.

      At the same time, Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López was chosen on Sunday by the Grupo de Diarios América (America Group of Daily Newspapers) (GDA), composed of 10 newspapers of the region, as the Latin American Person of 2015, along with Pope Francis, who leads this ranking for the second time, mainly because of his role in the rapprochement between the United States and Cuba. López was detained on February 18, 2014, and was sentenced to nearly 14 years of imprisonment in Ramo Verde military prison. He thanked the awardgranted by GDA. "This is not only about me, but about a cause, the cause of freedom and democracy for Venezuela," he said. López told the organization that the Venezuelan opposition needed "to consolidate" its leadership to "achieve the political change (...) and to do that, there are constitutional mechanisms which can be enforced according to the circumstances."

FROM HIS JAIL, LEOPOLDO LOPEZ SAYS THAT NICOLAS MADURO'S EXIT SHOULD BE A PRIORITY

    
Ousting President Nicolas Maduro should be a priority of Venezuela's new legislature that meets in January, jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez said in an interview out Sunday. Lopez told the daily El Nacional that Maduro must be removed before his term formally ends in 2019.

     Opposition candidates won a resounding two-thirds majority in the December 6 elections for the National Assembly, ending 16 years of leftist pro-government majority. "The first step we must take is to consolidate the opposition leadership's committment that Maduro must leave before 2019," Lopez said, answering written questions sent by the newspaper. Next is to determine how to do this legally, and there are "several constitutional mechanisms that can be applied according to the circumstances," he said. Lopez is being held at the Ramo Verde military prison on the outskirts of Caracas after being sentenced to nearly 14 years for inciting violence at anti-government protests that left 43 people dead.

     One of the opposition's first moves when the new National Assembly opens on January 5 will likely be to pass an amnesty law for what it says are some 80 political prisoners who have been unjustly jailed. Maduro has vowed to veto any such bill, but there are enough opposition votes in the National Assembly to override the veto. The most prominent jailed opposition figure is Lopez, 44, the Harvard-educated leader of the Popular Will party. Maduro, 53, is the hand-picked successor of the late leftist icon Hugo Chavez. Maduro was narrowly elected to a six-year term in April 2013. Lopez, considered the founder of the people's will party, says the victory of December 6 "represents a weakening of the dictatorship in the pursuit of its definitive collapse".

December 21, 2015

PP WINS SPANISH GENERAL ELECTIONS BUT IS FAR FROM MAJORITY, EXIT POLLS SHOW

       The governing center-right Popular Party, or PP, won Sunday's general elections in Spain, but it is far from having an absolute majority in what will likely be a highly fragmented Parliament, exit polls show. The PP won between 114 and 118 seats; the Spanish Socialist Workers Party, or PSOE, got between 81 and 85 seats; the leftist Podemos party won 76 to 80 seats; and the centrist Ciudadanos got 47 to 50 seats in the 350-seat lower house of Parliament, an RTVE exit poll found.

    The results will create a highly fragmented Parliament, making it difficult to form a government because even potential alliances will fall short of the 176 seats needed for an absolute majority. The elections were marked by a huge loss in votes by the two main parties, the PP and the PSOE, which have governed Spain at different times since 1982. The PP will lose the solid absolute majority of 186 seats that it won in 2011, ending up with between 114 and 118 seats, while the PSOE will go from holding 110 seats to having between 81 and 85. Pablo Iglesias's new Podemos party, which has a leftist and anti-austerity platform, emerged from the March 15, 2011, protests and will now be the No. 3 party in Parliament after grabbing 20.5 percent of the vote and 76 to 80 seats.

    Podemos currently holds no seats in Parliament, but it won control of numerous offices in the May municipal and regional elections. Podemos will not have more seats than the PSOE, but it could end up with 21.7 percent of the vote to 20.5 percent for the socialists, RTVE said. Ciudadanos, a new centrist party led by Albert Rivera, will be the No. 4 party in Parliament. Rivera started his political career in the northeastern Spanish region of Catalonia and made the jump to the national level in these elections. Another exit poll, conducted by the private Antena 3 network, gives the win to the PP, with between 121 and 124 seats, but without a sufficient majority to form a government even with the possible support of Ciudadanos. The PSOE finished in second place, with between 79 and 83 seats, Antena 3 said, while Podemos finished third, with between 70 and 74 seats, and Ciudadanos ended up fourth, with between 46 and 50 seats.

CARACAS ARCHBISHOP: "D6 MARKED A CHANGE OF COURSE" FOR VENEZUELA"

      
For Venezuela's Jorge Cardinal Urosa Savino the outcome of the parliament vote held on December 6 revealed that Venezuelans decided to give a "change of course" to the country in rejection of a political model which "is pushing us to shortage, deprivation, and a absolutely exorbitant inflation." He asked the government to assume and interpret the people's decision "with humbleness" and make the necessary corrections. "The people have refused (to stand in) lines for five, seven and 10 hours to find two kilos of flour or eggs at a regulated price. The country has changed its course, and in that regard the government must humbly listen to the people's voice, for the people are not only those voting for them, the people are all Venezuelans," Urosa explained in an interview with private TV channel Televen.

     After warning that "a violent discourse encourages violence," the Caracas Archbishop demanded "calm, good sense and equanimity" from PresidentNicolás Maduro, reminding him he "has the obligation to foster coexistence among all Venezuelans. The President of the Republic may agree or not with something, yet he must not use a violent discourse." This week Maduro raised the tone of his speech, saying: "I wanted to build 500,000 dwellings, but I do not know if I may, not because I do not want to, but because I asked for your support and you refused," he reproached on Tuesday and warned on Saturday that in the upcoming weeks "a power struggle between the two (major local political) poles" would emerge. "The Head of State must focus on listening to the people's voice. The people spoke out and said, "We do not want this course, we do not want this way, we want a different political system; you (Maduro) must rectify!' the prelate commented.

     When Urosa was asked if he did not like the political and economic model implemented by the government, he replied: "We, the Venezuelan bishops, have said several times that the country is going the wrong way, for they want to impose a totalitarian, Marxist, and communist model, which has failed everywhere causing the ruin of the countries where it has been imposed. We are getting ruined!" Urosa hoped that "all Venezuelans live with dignity, have a job, that money is enough, and that murders stop. He requested the new opposition majority of the National Assembly (AN) to work with "great humbleness" to "do their best to solve the problems" Venezuelans are facing. Further Urosa reiterated his support for an amnesty for the imprisoned opposition political leaders in order to encourage a climate of reconciliation nationwide. "An Amnesty Law must exist because many people have been imprisoned due to offenses connected with political actions. In my opinion, they were unfairly imprisoned," the Cardinal stated and pointed out: "I especially think on the young people detained last year, who are in the jails of (the Bolivarian Intelligence Service) Sebin, ‘at La Tumba' (jail), and some who were detained for having simply posted some tweets."

U.S. TO BEGIN COMMERCIAL FLIGHTS TO CUBA

    
On Wednesday, Washington and Havana reached an agreement to allow commercial airlines to establish service between the US and Cuba, the Washington Post reports. The restoration of diplomatic ties with Cuba has unleashed a surge of interest from US travelers eager to visit the long-prohibited country. However, experts say it will probably be three to six months before US carriers can begin selling tickets to Cuba, the Post reports. Since the United States announced the start of normalizing diplomatic relations with Cuba, the Obama administration has been working steadily to ease US congressional restrictions on travel by Americans to Cuba. “It makes no sense that Americans can travel freely anywhere in the world except Cuba," said Tim Rieser, foreign-policy aide to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont told the Wall Street Journal in August.

      At this time, travel to Cuba remains restricted. Americans have to provide a reason to travel to the country, and that doesn't include sitting on the beach and reading a book. You can't just be a tourist, yet. There are only 12 authorized reasons, including visiting family, academic programs for which students receive credits, professional research, journalistic or religious activities, and participation in public performances or athletic competitions. Earlier this year, American Airlines announced that it would begin offering charter flights to Cuba from the West Coast. So far, only one other major US carrier has opened up direct flights to Havana following the renewal of diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba. In July, JetBlue Airways Corp began direct charter flights between New York City and the Cuban capital in July, the first such flight in decades. For those who prefer sea travel, there are cruises available that visit the country, although mainstream cruise passengers are considered tourists.

     The New York Times reports that, “owners of cruise ships and passenger ferries can operate between the United States and Cuba without a license, so long as the people they are carrying are licensed to travel there.” Some infrastructure exists as cruise ships owned by non-American companies have been traveling to Cuba for years. In July, American cruise company Carnival Corporation announced that it would begin to offer trips from Miami to the island nation. In September, Verizon announced that it will provide mobile phone service in Cuba. Customers using a “world device" – a device capable of receiving signals in Cuba – will need to first subscribe to the Pay-As-You-Go international travel option, Verizon said. While Verizon is the first cell phone carrier to make its way to Cuba, other American companies have launched services in Cuba, too, including MasterCard, Netflix, and Airbnb. Travelers to Cuba can also use US credit and debit cards during their travels. Last month, MasterCard and Stonegate Bank announced that their cards are now active for use in hotels, restaurants, and other stores in Cuba.

December 20, 2015

US SPENDING BILL LIFTS 40-YEAR BAN ON CRUDE OIL EXPORTS

       The U.S. Congress voted on Friday to repeal the 40-year-old ban on exporting U.S. crude oil in an energy policy shift sought by Republicans as part of a bipartisan deal that also provided unprecedented tax incentives for wind and solar power. The Senate, on a 65-33 vote, approved lifting the ban and providing five-year extensions of tax breaks to boost renewable energy development as part of a $1.8 trillion government spending and tax relief bill that President Barack Obama quickly signed into law. The energy deal was hammered out in secret talks among congressional leaders over two weeks.

      Senators Lisa Murkowski, a Alaska Republican, and Democrats Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico had worked for more than a year to get the deal. Democrats who backed the deal asserted that its provisions encouraging renewable energy were important for combating global climate change. "This is the biggest deal for addressing climate change that we are going to see," Heinrich said in an interview. Heinrich said Democrats may not have been able to get a better deal even if they controlled both chambers of Congress, now led by Republicans. Many Republicans have opposed Democratic proposals to address climate change.

      Congress, concerned about U.S. dependence on imported oil, imposed the crude oil export ban after the Arab oil embargo of the early 1970s that sent gasoline prices soaring and contributed to runaway inflation. Arab members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) imposed the embargo following the U.S. decision to re-supply the Israeli military during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. Drillers have said lifting the ban would increase U.S. oil security and give Washington's allies in Europe and Asia an alternative source of crude beyond OPEC and Russia. The bill could benefit oil companies including Exxon Mobil Corp , ConocoPhillips and Chevron . Due to a global glut in oil supplies, lifting the ban is not expected to lead to significant U.S. export shipments for months or even years, but could give crude producers the increased flexibility they coveted.

CHINA SLAMS US AFTER B-52 BOMBER FLIES OVER CONTESTED SOUTH CHINA SEA REEF

      
China accused the U.S. Saturday of a serious military provocation following the flight of an American B-52 strategic bomber over China’s disputed territory in the South China Sea. A Defense Ministry statement said the U.S. is deliberately raising tensions in the disputed region. It demanded Washington immediately take measures to prevent such incidents and damage to relations when the two nations’ militaries.Pentagon officials told The Wall Street Journal they are investigating the flight path of the B-52. The military jet flew closer to Cuarteron Reef in the Spratly Islands. A senior U.S. defense official told the Journal bad weather may have contributed to the pilot flying off course and into area China claims.

     In October, a U.S. Navy ship passed within 12 nautical miles of the disputed islands in the South China Sea. Chinese officials warned the guided missile destroyer USS Lassen as it moved inside the zone around the Subi Reef. Navy officials said at the time that the sail-past was necessary to assert the U.S. position that China’s man-made islands cannot be considered sovereign territory with the right to surrounding territorial waters. Two American B-52 bombers also flew near the artificial islands last month. "We conduct B-52 flights in international air space in that part of the world all the time," Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said in November. "My understanding is there was one B-52 flight, I'm not even sure the date on it, but there was an effort made by Chinese ground controllers to reach out to that aircraft and that aircraft continued its mission. Nothing changed."

     The Pentagon said the recent B-52 flights were unplanned. “For this mission, there was no intention of flying to within 12 nautical miles, Cmdr. Bill Urban, a Pentagon spokesman, told The Wall Street Journal. China’s Defense Ministry called the flight and other U.S. military operations in the South China Sea “serious military provocations” that could cause militarization in the region. Washington and Beijing are locked in a diplomatic dispute over the South China Sea, with China declaring territorial sovereignty over the region while the U.S. insists on freedom of navigation. China "firmly opposes violating international law and undermining China's sovereignty and security interests under the pretext of navigation and overflight freedom," China Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said last month. In an effort to consolidate its claim, China has been piling sand on the reefs and atolls in the Spratly Islands archipelago before adding buildings, ports and airstrips big enough to handle bombers and fighter jets.

COSTA RICA SUSPENDS VISAS FOR CUBANS AS REGIONAL PROTEST

    
Costa Rica will suspend visas to Cuban migrants trying to head north to the U.S. after yet another failure Friday to broker a deal with neighbors that would create a corridor through Central America allowing them to pass. The visas will stop as of Saturday, President Luis Guillermo Solis said after returning from a meeting of the regional Central American Integration System in El Salvador.
Costa Rica also suspended its participation in the group to protest the lack of help from its neighbors in dealing with Cubans stranded within its borders. The country has nearly 6,000 Cuban migrants, many stuck in makeshift shelters, since Nicaragua refused in mid-November to let them pass through its territory on their way north toward the United States. Some 2,000 more at the Panama border will be the last to get visas, said Kattia Rodriguez, Costa Rica's migration director.

     "Please do not come to Costa Rican territory. If you do, you will be deported," Solis said, lamenting that the country had to make the decision after Belize, Guatemala and Nicaragua failed to help come up with a solution. Thousands of Cubans are migrating through Central America in fear that warming U.S.-Cuban relations could end their special immigration privileges in the United States. Meanwhile, a summit of Central American leaders in El Salvador on Friday failed to break a regional impasse over the fate of 5,000 US-bound Cuban migrants blocked in Costa Rica for weeks. "There was no solution at this summit to the problem with the Cuban migrants. There was no consensus over what should be done -- each country has its own point of view on the matter," Nicaragua's deputy foreign minister, Denis Moncada, told AFP. He added that his country's view was that the United States should step in to offer a solution.

      The Cubans -- another 1,200 of whom are also stranded in Panama -- have been left in limbo for a month, since Nicaragua closed its border to them on November 15 and posted soldiers and police to ensure none slipped in. In a sign of Costa Rica's frustration, Solis left the summit before its close without making a promised speech on the Cuban migrant issue. Nicaragua's government issued a statement to reporters after the summit that "demands that the United States find a solution for the immediate and safe transfer to its territory of the thousands of Cubans blocked on this dangerous transit route." Several of the other countries represented at the summit, which included host El Salvador, Guatemala, Panama, Belize and the Dominican Republic, called for a solution, but offered nothing concrete beyond insisting a consensus was needed. The thousands of Cubans are being put up in schools and tents in northern Costa Rica, near the Nicaraguan border, waiting for their chance to continue their odyssey north.

December 19, 2015

BELIEVE IT OR NOT:  AFTER ALL PRESIDENT OBAMA HAS DONE FOR RAUL CASTRO,  WITHOUT ASKING ANYTHING IN RETURN, CUBA SAYS  THAT OBAMA IS "WELCOME TO VISIT CUBA BUT NOT TO MEDDLE IN ITS INTERNAL AFFAIRS"

       U.S. President Barack Obama is welcome to visit Cuba but not to meddle in its internal affairs, a senior foreign ministry official said on Wednesday on the eve of the first anniversary of the two countries' historic rapprochement. "The day that the president of the United States decides to visit Cuba, he will be welcome," Josefina Vidal, director of U.S. affairs in the Cuban foreign ministry, told reporters. "Regarding what I just said, I'd like to recall that Cuba has always said ... it is not going to negotiate matters that are inherent to its internal system in exchange for an improvement in or the normalization of relations with the United States," Vidal said.

     Obama told Yahoo News in an interview about the Dec. 17 anniversary that he hopes to visit Cuba in 2016 but only if enough progress has been made in bilateral relations, he is able to meet with political dissidents, and if he can possibly "nudge the Cuban government in a new direction". It was a year ago that Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro shocked the world by announcing the former adversaries would normalize relations. By July they had agreed to restore diplomatic ties after a 54-year break. Obama has about 400 days left in office before handing over to the next president, potentially a Republican hostile to his new Cuba policy. Castro has 800 days left before stepping down and handing over power to a new Communist leader. Both have some urgency to cement the new relationship while advancing their strategic interests.

     "We are playing a game of chess and we have to make a certain number of moves before the time is up," said Rafael Hernandez, a Cuban political analyst. "We have to make enough moves so that if there is an unfavorable change in the U.S. administration, we will be too far along to turn back." In the year since detente, more Americans are visiting Cuba, and more Cubans are trying to reach America, concerned that preferential treatment for Cubans migrants may end. Under Cold War-era laws, Cubans are welcomed without a visa and given residency with relative ease. Since detente, Cuban overland arrivals to the United States have soared nearly 80 percent while the number arriving by sea has more than doubled. Since Obama eased restrictions on travel, U.S. visits to Cuba have climbed more than 70 percent, with 138,000 arrivals in the first 11 months of 2015.

PRESIDENT OBAMA WAS TOLD THAT HE CANNOT GO TO CUBA TO MEDDLE IN ITS INTERNAL AFFAIRS, BUT THE PRESIDENT, ONCE AGAIN, IS ASKING CONGRESS TO LIFT THE EMBARGO ON CUBA

      
President Barack Obama said on Thursday that the economic embargo imposed by the United States on Cuba in 1962 is “the legacy of a failed policy,” once again urging Congress to lift it on the first anniversary of the launching of a process of rapprochement and bilateral normalization of relations. In a statement issued on the anniversary of the policy shift, Obama also reiterated that “change” in Cuba will not occur “overnight” and that full normalization of relations “will be a long journey.”

     Obama emphasized the “important steps” that have been taken over the past year to normalize relations, including reestablishing diplomatic ties with the opening of embassies in Washington and Havana, facilitating more travel and trade with Cuba and “connecting more Americans and Cubans.” In addition, thanks to the change in U.S. policy toward Cuba, Washington is “in a stronger position” to engage “the people and governments of our hemisphere,” Obama said. “We continue to have differences with the Cuban government, but we raise those issues directly, and we will always stand for human rights and the universal values that we support around the globe,” the president added. On Dec. 17, 2014, Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced the start of an historic process to normalize bilateral relations after more than half a century of enmity.

     Today, the two governments announced that they had reached an agreement toresume direct commercial flights between the two countries, and last week they said they had agreed to reestablish direct postal service via a pilot plan for transporting mail and packages. However, very complex issues remain to be resolved such as mutual economic compensation and ongoing important differences between the two countries in matters such as immigration and human rights. Regarding the U.S. economic embargo on the communist island, although Obama has taken executive action to ease travel restrictions and some commercial transactions, the complete lifting of the embargo may only be done by Congress, which at present is controlled by the Republicans, a majority of whom are against eliminating it. Obama said on Thursday that “Congress can support a better life for the Cuban people” by lifting the embargo.

VENEZUELA TO PROTEST FRENCH PRIME MINISTER'S CONGRATULATORY LETTER TO OPPOSITION

    
 Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on Thursday said his government will summon France's ambassador to protest a letter by that country's prime minister congratulating the opposition for winning a congressional majority this month. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls' letter called the results a "large and uncontestable victory" and expressed hope for the release of "unfairly convicted prisoners of conscience" such as jailed opposition activist Leopoldo Lopez.

      "I have told the foreign minister to issue a strong note of protest and to summon the ambassador of France in Venezuela to very clearly explain the conditions for maintaining relations with a free and independent country," Maduro said in a televised broadcast. "I reject and repudiate the insolent, interventionist and immoral statements by France's prime minister." Valls addressed the Dec. 14 letter to Jesus Torrealba, head of the opposition's Democratic Unity coalition. On Thursday, he posted a copy of the letter on his Twitter account. "I wanted to warmly congratulate you and all democratic Venezuelans," reads Valls letter.

     "The victory of your coalition opens new perspectives for democracy in Venezuela." Venezuela's opposition will hold a majority in congress for the first time since late socialist leader Hugo Chavez rose to power in 1999. This month it took two-thirds of the legislature's 167 seats in a landslide victory driven by anger over the country's prolonged economic crisis. The opposition has said the first priority for the new congress will be an amnesty law to seek the release of jailed opposition leaders it describes as political prisoners. Many of those, including Lopez, were jailed for their involvement in several months of anti-government protests in 2014. Maduro describes Lopez as a dangerous criminal who sought to destabilise his government and has vowed to veto the law.

December 18, 2015

NICOLAS MADURO DA EL PRIMER PASO PARA RETENER EL PODER DE SU HUMILLANTE DERROTA

       El Gobierno de Venezuela ha respondido al varapalo sufrido en las elecciones parlamentarias, que perdió contra la opositora Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD), instalando un inédito Parlamento Comunal que imita las competencias de la Asamblea Nacional establecidas en la Constitución. “Yo voy a dar todo el poder al Parlamento Comunal, y ese Parlamento va a ser una instancia legislativa del pueblo desde la base”, dijo el presidente venezolano, Nicolás Maduro, el martes. Aunque parte de los dirigentes chavistas y la oposición minimizaron ese anuncio, otros instan a investigar supuestas irregularidades en los comicios. El Parlamento Comunal, que fue juramentado por el número dos del chavismo, Diosdado Cabello, el último día de sesiones de la legislatura 2011-2016, es parte de una estrategia mucho más ambiciosa que apunta a no reconocer la abrumadora victoria de la oposición el 6 de diciembre.

       El jefe del comando de campaña oficialista, el alcalde del municipio Libertador (centro oeste de Caracas) Jorge Rodríguez, anunció que pedirá a la Fiscalía General que investigue “las artimañas sucias utilizadas por la oposición” durante los comicios. El chavismoasegura que en el Estado de Amazonas, un gran territorio rural situado al sur del país, la gobernación, que está en manos de la oposición, pagaba entre Bs 2.000 (10 dólares a la tasa de cambio oficial Simadi) y Bs. 5000 (25 dólares) por cada voto. “Se trata de una violación a la Constitución, a las leyes electorales y un intento de vulnerar el sistema electoral”, recalcó el funcionario. El periodista Nelson Bocaranda sugirió el martes que el Gobierno va a impugnar la elección de 26 diputados, alegando irregularidades similares a las descritas por el alcalde Rodríguez. Todo ello con el objetivo de impedir que, con la mayoría calificada obtenida en las elecciones, la oposición pueda legislar en sentido contrario al espíritu del modelo económico chavista —dado a los controles de precios y a la asfixia del sector privado— y a favor de una apertura de la economía.

      Cuando se instale el Parlamento, a partir del próximo 5 de enero, el chavismo no podrá darle cariz legal a todas las decisiones políticas que apuntan a consolidar un proyecto revolucionario. El Parlamento Comunal, que fue juramentado por el número dos del chavismo, Diosdado Cabello, es parte de una estrategia que apunta a no reconocer la abrumadora victoria de la oposición. El escándalo generado por el anuncio de la creación del Parlamento Comunal ha provocado que parte del chavismo, que ya no funciona como una estructuraobediente a un solo mando, como en tiempos de su creador, haya intentado matizar esa impresión. El secretario ejecutivo de la MUD, Jesús Torrealba, ha dicho que en la Constitución venezolana no se menciona la palabra comuna. “El único Parlamento que existe en este país es la Asamblea Nacional”. “Si se ponen necios”, dijo en referencia a los asambleístas electos del Gobierno, “nosotros pondremos a funcionar la asamblea con nuestra mayoría calificada de 112 miembros”. El Poder Popular es una entelequia creada por el chavismo, no está incluida en la Constitución, pero sí tiene una ley y un ministerio, y que se define como “el ejercicio pleno de la soberanía por parte del pueblo”.

NICOLAS MADURO ACUSO A EE.UU. DE TERORISMO JUDICIAL POR VINCULAR AL GENERAL NESTOR REVEROL CON NARCOTRAFICO

      
A través de un comunicado, el gobierno elogió el trabajo de Reverol ante el control antidrogas. Sin embargo, de acuerdo con una publicación de The New York Times, el funcionario de la GNB ha estado más de una década en la nómina deorganizaciones criminales que debía perseguir. El gobierno rechazó hoy la actuación de EE UU a la que llamó terrorismo judicial y policial, después de publicarse que prepara una acusación contra dos funcionarios venezolanos por supuestamente recibir dinero del narcotráfico.

     Venezuela expresó su más profundo rechazo a la política exterior estadounidense, que a través de terrorismo judicial y policial por parte de sus agencias nacionales y mediante campañas mediáticas mundiales, persigue, amenaza y coacciona el ejercicio del Poder Público venezolano, señaló en un comunicado. Esta reacción tiene lugar luego de conocerse que, según el diario The New York Times, la Justicia estadounidense prepara una causa para intentar llevar ante los tribunales al comandante de la Guardia Nacional Néstor Reverol y al antiguo oficial de la unidad antidrogas EdilbertoMolina. La acusación, según el periódico, representará un nuevo caso en los intentos de la Justicia estadounidense por perseguir a quienes han asumido un importante papel en el narcotráfico.

    En el comunicado, el gobierno defendió a Reverol asegurando que hasta ahora la responsabilidad del jefe militar justamente es el control antidrogas con acciones cuyo éxito ha sido notable. En este sentido, Venezuela exige a Estados Unidos: "Ajustar sus procedimientos a la legalidad internacional, evitando manipulaciones que seguramente obedecen a intereses subalternos ajenos a la correcta y segura respuesta jurídica contra el crimen". La acusación contra Reverol podría ser anunciada este mismo mes y representará uno de los casos de alto perfil que involucran presuntamente a la élite política venezolana, dice el diario estadounidense. Según las mismas fuentes, Reverol presuntamente ha estado más de una década en la nómina de las organizaciones criminales que supuestamente tenía que perseguir.

LOS SOBRINOS DE LA PRIMERA DAMA DE VENEZUELA SE DECLARARON NO CULPABLES

    
 Dos sobrinos de la primera dama de Venezuela se declararon no culpables el jueves en una corte federal en la que enfrentan cargos de conspirar para importar cocaína a Estados Unidos. Franqui Francisco Flores de Freitas, de 30 años, y Efraín Antonio Campo Flores, de 29, presentaron sus declaraciones en una corte federal en Manhattan, cinco semanas después de que fueron arrestados en Haití.

     Su caso es el más reciente de una serie de acciones presentadas por autoridades estadounidenses que vinculan a individuos conectados con el Gobierno venezolano con el tráfico de drogas. Fuentes dijeron que ambos son sobrinos de Cilia Flores, esposa del presidente Nicolás Maduro. Según una fuente estadounidense, los dos sobrinos se reunieron con un informante de la Administración de Control de Drogas (DEA, por su sigla en inglés) en Honduras en octubre y le pidieron ayuda para enviar 800 kilos de cocaína a Estados Unidos a través del aeropuerto local de Roatán. Según la acusación, los dos también participaron ese mes en reuniones en Venezuela relacionadas con un cargamento de cocaína que debía enviarse a Estados Unidos vía Honduras.

      Los fiscales también planean presentar cargos por tráfico de drogas contra Néstor Reverol, jefe de la Guardia Nacional de Venezuela, y Edylberto Molina, actualmente agregado militar de la embajada venezolana en Alemania, dijeron personas familiarizadas con el asunto. El Departamento de Estado de Estados Unidos ha dicho que más de la mitad de la cocaína producida en la vecina Colombia es traficada a través de Venezuela hacia mercados en Europa y Estados Unidos. Maduro insiste que los cargos de tráfico de drogas contra funcionarios son parte de una campaña internacional de la derecha para desacreditar al socialismo en Venezuela.
 

December 17, 2015

US TO CHARGE VENEZUELAN NATIONAL GUARD COMMANDING GENERAL WITH DRUG TRAFFICKING

       American prosecutors are preparing to announce drug-trafficking charges against Venezuelan National Guard chief Néstor Reverol, Reuters reported on Tuesday, citing sources close to the investigation. According to the news agency, Reverol’s name appears in the sealed indictment issued by a Brooklyn federal district judge. The charges and date of announcement remain unknown, and a spokesman for the judge declined to comment on the case. Reverol could become the first Venezuelan senior official in office accused of drugs crimes by the US. Reverol, the former head of the Venezuelan anti-drug trafficking agency, had close ties to the late President Hugo Chávez. If the charges are confirmed, Reverol will become the first Venezuelan senior official in office accused of drugs-related crimes by the United States.

     Reverol’s possible indictment comes at a time when US prosecutors are opening more and more investigations into the roles of Venezuelan officials in cocaine trafficking. In the last four years, at least five former high-ranking officials have been accused of drug trafficking, according to court documents filed in New York and Florida. In mid-November, a New York federal district court accused two nephews of Venezuelan First Lady Cilia Flores of conspiring to smuggle 800 kilograms of cocaine into the United States. In May 2015, The Wall Street Journal reported that the United States was investigating half-a-dozen high-ranking Venezuelan officials – including Reverol and National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello – for alleged narco-trafficking and money laundering.

      That investigation also included Aragua state Governor and former Interior Minister Tareck el Aissami, and ex-chief of military intelligence, Hugo Carvajal. In 2008, the United States accused Carvajal of participating in drug-trafficking schemes with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Reverol, who also served as interior minister in the past, is the director of the Venezuelan army’s border security division. In the last few years, he has rejected criticism from Washington, saying that Venezuela has not done enough to stop drug trafficking. According to the White House, Venezuela exported a quarter of all of the cocaine produced in South America in 2011. According to the White House, Venezuela exported a quarter of all of the cocaine produced in South America in 2011 The US State Department’s annual International Narcotics Control Strategy Report says Venezuela has become a major drug-transit country “due to its porous western border with Colombia,” the largest producer of cocaine in the world, “weak judicial system, sporadic international counter-narcotics cooperation, and permissive and corrupt environment.”

NICOLAS MADURO SEEKS TO UNDERMINE OPPOSITION CONGRESS

      
NICOLAS MADURO took another step to undermine the opposition's landslide in congressional elections, creating a new grassroots assembly that critics fear could become a vehicle to override the incoming opposition-led legislature. On Tuesday, National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello presided over the inauguration inside the legislature building of the first-ever "National Communal Parliament" with the aim of giving revolutionary activists a mechanism to make decisions and manage resources. Cabello didn't offer details on how the grassroots assembly, an outgrowth of the late Hugo Chavez*s dream of empowering self-administering communal councils, will operate.

     But opponents fear it could be an attempt to wrest control from the incoming opposition-controlled congress much as other central government-created agencies have been entrusted with large budgets operating parallel to defunded districts where opposition politicians govern. President Nicolas Maduro has been defiant in the face of the opposition*s winning a two-third supermajority in Dec. 6 elections, vowing to take to the streets to defend the revolution started by Chavez and blaming the loss on an "economic war" waged with U.S. support. He also shot down several top priorities for the incoming congress, including an amnesty law for jailed activists the opposition considers political prisoners.

      On Tuesday, in a meeting with grassroots activists, he praised the new legislative initiative with heated rhetoric. "I*m going to give all the power to the communal parliament," Maduro said. "This parliament is going to be a legislative mechanism from the grassroots. All power to the Communal parliament," he said, without giving details. In another slap to the opposition, lawmakers also swore in Tuesday as the nation's top public defender the judge, Susana Barreiros, who this year sentenced opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez to nearly 14 years in jail. Cabello is vowing to ram through in the coming days the appointment of 12 Supreme Court justices to fill vacancies left by pro-government judges who retired early rather than risk seeing the high court tilt toward the opposition. The opposition's sweeping win gives it the power to challenge Maduro*s rule by removing ministers, passing laws without the executive*s support and even convoking an assembly to rewrite Chavez's 1999 constitution.

ONCE DEFECTORS, CUBAN MLB STARS RETURN TO HAVANA FOR 3-DAY EXHIBITION

    
A lineup of Cuban-born baseball stars, including some of the most famous defectors in recent memory, made a triumphant return to the island as part of the first Major League Baseball trip here since 1999. Once the object of official disdain in Cuba for leaving the country illegally, Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig, St. Louis Cardinals catcher Brayan Pena and first baseman Jose Abreu of the Chicago White Sox were swarmed by fans and members of the state media Tuesday in the lobby of Havana's soaring Hotel Nacional at the start of a three-day mission meant to warm relations between MLB and Cuba.

     The major leagues and Cuban baseball have been moving quickly to rebuild ties since Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro declared a year ago Thursday that they would re-establish diplomatic relations. The official return of baseball defectors earning millions in the major leagues was a landmark in the new relationship and a dramatic manifestation of Cuba's shifting attitude toward the hundreds of players who have abandoned the country that trained them. Puig, who fled to Mexico in a smuggler's fast-boat in 2012 and then crossed the border to Texas, wrapped his childhood coach Juan Arechavaleta in a bear-hug, resting the side of his face atop the smaller man's head. "I'm very happy to be here," said Puig, who signed a seven-year, $42 million contract and was barred from returning to Cuba until he was granted special permission for this week's trip.

    Pena, who is from Havana, was met by at least 20 family members. They laughed at stories of the catcher's life in America and handed him the phone to talk to relatives who hadn't been able to make it to the hotel. The players will hold two days of youth clinics while league and Major League Baseball Players Association executives talk business with their Cuban counterparts, including former President Fidel Castro's son Tony, who is one of the most powerful men in Cuban baseball. League officials said they were optimistic about sealing a deal by early next year for the Tampa Bay Rays to play two spring training games in Cuba. They also hope to make progress in one day creating a legal route for Cuban players to make their way to the major leagues. Cuban television avoids games featuring defectors but fans watch their idols' performances on pirated recordings distributed on computer USB drives.

December 16, 2015

PRESIDENT OBAMA: ISLAMIC STATE IS LOSING GROUND

       President Barack said Monday that he is "confident" the U.S.-led coalition will prevail in its battle against the Islamic State, adding that the militant group is losing ground and its leaders have noplace to hide. "Our message to them is simple: 'You are next,' " he said in a strongly worded statement at the Pentagon after meeting Monday with his national security team on the latest efforts to counter ISIS. The president sought to reassure Americans after a deadly attack in San Bernardino, California, earlier this month by a married couple believed to have been inspired by IS, and a bloody massacre in Paris by extremists in November. The U.S. will continue to lead the global coalition in the effort, which Obama said is moving forward "with a great sense of urgency.”

    Obama announced no change in strategy but said coalition forces will continue to search for and kill terrorist leaders, and train and equip Iraqi forces and some of the opposition fighters in Syria who are battling Islamic State militants. In addition, the U.S. will keep working to disrupt the group's recruitment of fighters, finance operations and propaganda campaigns. Finally, Obama said, the U.S. will keep up diplomatic efforts to bring an end to the civil war in Syria and bring about a political transition so the coalition can keep its focus on destroying the Islamic State group. ‘We will wipe them out’

     During a rare trip to the Pentagon, the president received an update from his national security team on counter-IS efforts. After the meeting, Obama said the Islamic State has lost thousands of miles in Syria and ground in Iraq. As the coalition squeezes the militants in the region, the U.S. leader said, the battle must be relentless, but smart, targeting IS "surgically and with precision." The coalition is destroying Islamic State fighters, bunkers, heavy weapons and bomb-making factories. "We will wipe them out," Obama vowed, adding that the group has not had a successful major offensive operation in Syria or Iraq since midyear. Moreover, people in the region are seeing the Islamic State "for the thugs and the thieves they are," Obama said, adding that their brutality is repelling local populations. Meanwhile, the U.S. will continue to work to further build up international contributions to the coalition's effort to defeat ISIS.

PRESIDENT OBAMA WANTS TO VISIT CUBA  BUT U.N. DENOUNCES AT LEAST 1500 DISSIDENTS ARBITRARILY DETAINED LAST MONTH

      
Cuban human rights activists are at increased risk of detention or harassment from the authorities amid demonstrations on International Human Rights Day, 10 December, said the United Nations Organizatiol following a wave of arrests in just over a month. Yesterday, police in the capital Havana arbitrarily restricted the movement of members of the prominent Ladies in White (Damas de Blanco) group of activists as they prepared for today’s demonstrations. This came after at least 1,500 politically motivated detentions in November 2015, the highest monthly total in many years, according to the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN).

     “For weeks on end, the Cuban authorities have used a spike in arrests and harassment to prevent human rights activists and dissidents from protesting peacefully. This is a systematic problem that silences Cuban activists in their own streets. For years, harassment on Human Rights Day has been the rule rather than the exception, and is absolutely unacceptable,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas Director at Amnesty International. The Ladies in White and other organizations have been convening activists to march today, in Havana and elsewhere, in support of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and to exercise their rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression.

     The group and their supporters have held regular Sunday marches for more than 30 consecutive weeks to call for the release of Cuban political prisoners and human rights protection. These peaceful demonstrations have been met with a pattern of arbitrary arrests and other harassment by the authorities. The pro-democracy group Patriotic Union of Cuba (Unión Patriótica de Cuba, UNPACU) has also reported mass detentions of its members across the country in recent months. In a bid to curtail the protests, frequently the arrested activists have been driven to remote areas where they are left to walk home, or they have been detained for anywhere from one to 30 hours. Cuban human rights activists say this year has been marked not only by a high number of arrests, but also increased violence from state authorities towards peaceful political dissidents and activists. “The Cuban authorities must refrain from dispersing, arresting or detaining peaceful protesters,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas. “Cubans’ right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly must be respected on Human Rights Day and throughout the year.”

OIL PRICES COLLAPSES TO 11 YEAR LOW    

    
Venezuela's mix of heavy oil continued tumbling this week, hitting an 11 year low as oil prices around the world collapsed on slowing demand and oversupply in the wake of OPEC's decision not to cut production. Instead, OPEC raised quotas to reflect current over-production levels. According to figures released by the Venezuela Ministry of Energy and Petroleum, the average price of Venezuelan crude sold by Petroleos de Venezuela S.A. (PDVSA) during the week ending December 11 was $31.24, down $2.81 from the previous week's $34.05. WTI in New York averaged $37.81 -- down $3.44 -- for the week, while Brent crude traded in London averaged $40.77 -- down $3.28 from the previous week.

     According to Venezuelan government figures, the average price in 2015 for Venezuela's mix of heavy and medium crude is now $45.55 for the year. Venezuela's average oil price for 2014 was $88.42, down from 2013's $98.08, 2012's $103.42 and 2011's $101.06, but higher than 2010's $72.43, and much higher than 2009’s average price of $57.01, which the current average is well below. In 2014, WTI averaged $93.06 while Brent averaged $99.61. So far this year, Venezuela's oil basket hit its highest price of $57.00 during the week ending May 15. Venezuela set its 2015 low of $31.24 this week, its lowest recorded weekly price since December of 2004.

    Historically, Venezuela's basket set its highest weekly average ever on July 18, 2008, when it hit $126.46 before economies around the world began crashing under the weight of expensive oil and disastrous sub-prime debt. By Christmas of 2008, Venezuela's oil basket had fallen to a daily low of $27.10 a barrel (those statistics go unreported by PDVSA during the lightly staffed Christmas holidays and are in LAHT's database but not included in the Ministry's database), making this week's $31.24 the lowest weekly average since the $30.42 reached on December 10, 2004. The United States is the largest importer of Venezuela’s oil exports. According to the US Department of Energy, Venezuela was the fourth-largest supplier of imported crude oil and petroleum products to the United States behind Canada, Saudi Arabia, and Mexico. U.S. imports from Venezuela have been on an overall decline in recent years. In 2014, the United States imported an average of 793,000 barrels per day of crude oil and petroleum products from Venezuela, a decline of 49% from a decade ago.

December 15, 2015

PRESIDENT OBAMA WANTS TO VISIT TO CUBA, BUT ONLY IF THE CONDITIONS ARE RIGHT 

       This story is part of a weeklong Yahoo series marking one year since the opening of relations between the United States and Cuba. President Obama promised in an exclusive interview with Yahoo News that he “very much” hopes to visit Cuba during his last year in office, but only if he can meet with pro-democracy dissidents there. “If I go on a visit, then part of the deal is that I get to talk to everybody,” Obama said. “I’ve made very clear in my conversations directly with President [Raul] Castro that we would continue to reach out to those who want to broaden the scope for, you know, free expression inside of Cuba.”

     Speaking in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Obama strongly hinted that he would make a decision “over the next several months.” The president said he hopes that “sometime next year” he and his top aides will see enough progress in Cuba that they can say that “now would be a good time to shine a light on progress that’s been made, but also maybe [go] there to nudge the Cuban government in a new direction.” White House aides privately describe an Obama visit – under the right circumstances – as the logical culmination of the new policy direction that he announced almost exactly one year ago.

    On Dec. 17, 2014, Obama and Raúl Castro stunned the world by disclosing that they had held secret negotiations and were prepared to usher in a new era of U.S.-Cuba relations, starting with the resumption of full diplomatic ties. Embassies reopened in Havana and Washington, the United States removed Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism, and the two sides took steps to increase travel and business opportunities. Obama has undertaken many changes using his executive powers, and indicated in the interview that he would continue looking at ways to do so in 2016. But Obama needs Congress to roll back the centerpiece of America’s Cold War-era pressure on Cuba and lift the U.S. trade embargo.

COSTA RICA PRESIDENT TELLS CUBA HE CANNOT KEEP AIDING STALLED MIGRANTS

      
 Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solis TOLD Cuban President Raul Castro his Central American country is unable to continue caring for thousands of Cuban migrants indefinitely, seeking to force a resolution to the month-long crisis. Solis arrived in Cuba on Sunday for the first official visit by a Costa Rican president in 72 years with nearly 5,000 Cuban migrants stranded on his country's northern border with Nicaragua as they seek to reach the United States. Solis is due to meet Castro on Tuesday. "We cannot maintain this task indefinitely," Solis said of the effort by national and local officials, churches and private companies to support the Cubans, most of them living in shelters.

     "With all brotherly frankness, I will pose this in meetings to be held with the presidents of the SICA (Central American Integration System) and in Havana with President Raul Castro," Solis said in an address broadcast in Costa Rica. Solis' visit to Cuba was planned well before the crisis. Costa Rica re-established relations with Cuba in 2009, the last country in Latin America to do so. The Cubans began arriving a month ago on their dangerous 7,000-kms (4,400-mile) overland trek from Ecuador, where they could fly without a visa to the Mexican-U.S. border, where Cubans are given legal passage into the United States. When the United States reached detente with Cuba a year ago, it led to a spike in Cuban emigration, partly due to fears the Americans would end the special treatment that grants them residence with relative ease.

    The issue reached crisis proportions when Costa Rica broke up a gang of human smugglers, leaving the Cubans in the lurch. Costa Rica closed its border after arresting the smugglers, then granted the Cubans temporary visas to pass through. But Nicaragua, a country further to the north that is also a close ally of Cuba's, refused to follow suit, leaving Costa Rica with an ever growing number of migrants. Nearly 5,000 are stuck in shelters on the border and an estimated 1,300 to 1,500 are held up in Panama, one country to the south, attempting to move into Costa Rica. Cuba has repeatedly blamed the United States' Cold War-era immigration policy for enticing its citizens to risk their lives and fostering human smuggling. Solis has promised not to deport the Cubans and to continue looking for a way to get them to the United States.
Cuba, Creditors Reach Historic Multi-Billion Debt Deal
 

CUBA HAS REACHED A LANDMARK AGREEMENT WITH FOREIGN CREDITORS OVER 8.5 BILLION OF DOLLARS IN UNPAID DEBT 

    
The Paris Club of creditor nations announced a deal Monday under which creditors will cancel $8.5 billion in overdue interest payments, in exchange for a promise by Cuba to pay off $2.6 billion of the original debt over the next 18 years. France, Cuba's biggest creditor, led the negotiations. "This accord opens the way to a new era in relations between Cuba and the international financial community," Finance Minister Michel Sapin said in a statement.

    Sapin said the deal "helps to definitively resolve the issue of Cuba's medium-term debt ... which has not been honored since the 1980s." President Raul Castro has been working to improve relations with creditors as he tries to modernize and open up the communist island's economy, which defaulted on its debts in 1986 and was devastated by the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. The U.S. maintains an economic embargo against Cuba, and is not among the creditor nations, though President Barack Obama and Castro have opened ties.

     As part of the debt agreement, France canceled $4 billion in late interest payments, which made up the bulk of the money Cuba owed. Of the remaining debt, Cuba agreed to pay $240 million in cash to France, and $230 million will be invested in development projects, the Finance Ministry said. The creditors from the Paris Club said in a statement that they "welcomed progress made by Cuba toward the normalization of its relations with creditors and the international financial community." The group of Cuban creditors includes: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and Britain. France agreed to resume its development activity in Cuba after French President Francois Hollande visited Castro and his brother, longtime Cuban leader Fidel Castro, earlier this year.

December 14, 2015

BRAZILIANS TAKE TO THE STREETS TO DEMAND DILMA ROUSSEFF'S IMPEACHMENT 

       
 Thousands of Brazilians took to the streets of major cities on Sunday to demand President Dilma Rousseff's ouster, but the first nationwide protests since formal impeachment proceedings began were smaller than similar events earlier this year. Police did not provide official estimates for turnout although television stations said there were about 6,000 in Sao Paulo and slightly fewer in Rio de Janeiro and Brasilia. "This is just a warm-up, there will be a huge mobilization in January," said Paloma Morena, a 35-year-old chemist on Sao Paulo's most famous street, Avenida Paulista.

     Hundreds of thousands took to the streets in August and up to a million Brazilians were estimated to have turned out in March. A large-scale mobilization could increase pressure on lawmakers to vote for Rousseff's impeachment. Lower House Speaker Eduardo Cunha opened impeachment proceedings on Dec. 2, agreeing Congress should consider opposition allegations that Rousseff violated budget laws to increase spending during her 2014 re-election campaign. But many Brazilians are more upset about the worst economic recession in at least 25 years and a corruption scandal at state-run oil firm Petrobras that has ensnared many of her allies. Rousseff is not under investigation, but many Brazilians question how she could not have known about the corruption as she was chairwoman of Petrobras from 2003 to 2010.

     "Inflation is through the roof, unemployment is shockingly high and we get nothing for the amount of taxes we pay," said Andre Patrao, a 47-year-old economist demonstrating in Rio's posh Copacabana neighborhood. Currently the opposition is not thought to have the votes to impeach Rousseff, who denies mishandling public accounts and has pledged to fight impeachment in order to finish her second term. If a house committee decides in favor of impeachment, the process will go to a full vote on the house floor, where the opposition needs two-thirds of the votes to begin a 180-day impeachment trial in the Senate. During that trial, Rousseff would be suspended and replaced by Vice President Michel Temer. The Supreme Court has suspended impeachment proceedings until it rules on the validity of a secret ballot vote that selected the members of the house committee. Meanwhile Cunha, a former ally who broke with Rousseff, is facing formal charges in the Petrobras investigation over allegations he took bribes.

MAURICIO MACRI MEETS GOVERNORS AMID CHANGE OF TONE FOR ARGENTINA

      
Argentina's new President Mauricio Macri met with governors on Saturday in another major change of tone from his predecessor Cristina Kirchner's confrontational style. Macri was sworn in as Argentina's new president Thursday, turning the page on 12 years under left-wing power couple Nestor and Cristina Kirchner. The outgoing president was famous for her harsh treatment of foes. Their pro-poor, pro-working-class policies endeared them to a loyal following among many voters Macri, 56, a conservative businessman, marks the start of a new era for Argentina. He welcomed the leaders of 24 jurisdictions to the Olivos presidential residence, looking for common ground.

     "I think that we all agree on the need to create jobs," Macri said. "There is a consensus that in the (22) provinces the only growth area has been in public sector jobs. And that has helped bring many of the provinces into bankruptcy," Macri said. In an interesting twist, one of the governors he met was a Kirchner -- Alicia Kirchner, the sister of Nestor Kirchner, who now leads Santa Cruz province in the Patagonia region. With Latin America's third-largest economy now slumping back toward recession, Macri's calls for change propelled him to a come-from-behind win in the run-off election on November 22 against Kirchner's chosen successor, Daniel Scioli. He has vowed to end protectionist import restrictions, cut heavy taxes on agricultural exports and scrap the official exchange rate puffing up the Argentine peso.

      The son of a wealthy businessman, Macri rose to fame as the president of Argentina's most popular football club, Boca Juniors, during a storied string of trophy wins. The twice-divorced father of four, who is married to a former model turned businesswoman, had been Buenos Aires mayor since 2007. Macri has vowed to kick-start Latin America's third-largest economy by ending protectionist import restrictions, cutting heavy taxes on agricultural exports and scrapping the official exchange rate puffing up the Argentine peso. That will mark a dramatic departure from the hands-on economic policies adopted by the Kirchners in the wake of Argentina's devastating 2001 economic crisis. "The challenge is to get the economy working again," said Macri's future economy minister, former central bank chief Alfonso Prat-Gay. "We have no more reserves. The exchange-rate controls make no sense. They have destroyed the economy in the provinces, and much of our industry, too."

CUBAN MIGRANTS TRAPPED WITHIN COSTA RICAN BORDERS SHOW THEIR APPRECIATION THROUGH COMMUNITY SERVICES 

    
According to Mauricio Herrera, Costa Rican Minister of Communication: “Many of the people who are in the shelters have expressed the necessity to occupy their time.” The small land of Costa Rica now has around 5,000 Cubans locked into its borders — many of whom only received 7-day transit visas upon entering. Most came with just enough supplies to make it through, and some are down to just the clothes on their back. Thankfully, Costa Rican towns by the border have taken Cuban travelers into shelters, despite having hardly any information about when the crisis may resolve.

      Local organizations have also taken note, laying the groundwork for the community action initiative. Gisela Sánchez, Director of Corporate Relations at the Florida Ice and Farm Company (FIFCO) explains: “We have witnessed the difficult situation these people face and want to work with both them and the government so they can participate in projects that positively impact the surrounding communities.” “We thank FIFCO for their support, and we hope more companies will be motivated to participate to make theliving situation more bearable for the more than 5,000 Cubans who are currently waiting for countries in the region to allow them to continue their passage to the U.S. As this happens, we support the communities that host them.” The small group that went out yesterday is expected to be the first of many who will be working with other local organizations to provide at least a temporary solution to a complicated situation.

     The “Migrant Crisis” — as the media has come to refer the border dispute between Nicaragua and Costa Rica which barricades as many as 5,000 Cubans from continuing their journey towards the U.S. — goes back to November when Nicaragua announced that it would not be allowing the migrants into their country. To Nicaragua’s defense, Guatemala has pledged to do the same, thus hypothetically leaving Nicaragua with the same dilemma that Costa Rica now faces should they choose to accept the migrants. Back on the island, the Cuban foreign ministry points the blame towards the U.S.’s Cold War policies that supposedly encouraged illegal emmigration by granting Cuban nationals an easier residency process than immigrants from other countries under the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act.

December 13, 2015

THE ILLEGITIMATE PRESIDENT OF VENEZUELA, NICOLAS MADURO, ORDERED THE FAN TO BE PREPARED FOR "AN UNCONVENTIONAL WAR" 

       
   Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the armed forces on Saturday to be prepared for an "unconventional war" during a ceremony in which he promised to work for improvements to the military and their families, nearly a week after his resounding defeat in the legislative elections. "I want to tell you, women and men, get ready to defend the country and that no one should hesitate (...). We will not allow the right and the bourgeoisie, from the positions of power that they have just acquired, to take from us the sovereignty, independence and justice that we have built during these years of sacrifice, "said Maduro in the first military ceremony he has presided since the parliamentary elections.

    The socialist president said that Venezuela is a victim of "unconventional warfare, economic, electrical, financial, criminal and psychological," which he attributed to right-wing sectors supported by the United States. "We are facing a crisis of major dimensions, which I have characterized as a counter-power crisis," he said in the traditional ceremony to welcome Christmas and New Year to the Armed Forces. According to the ruler, there has been a clash between "the pole representing the fatherland" and an "unpatriotic Polo" he noted, "based on the war and foul play, the achieved a circumstantial success." He added that he will apply all the mechanisms given to him by the Constitution "to regulate such historical tensions". "They will not implode this country, they will not destroy it and they will not make us to go back. At the cost of our own lives, I will not allow it! "He affirmed.

    Maduro also told the military who work in public administrations to return to their barracks. "I have given the order to implement a well thought out and detailed plan for you to return to your command posts and active duties in each component, the comrades who have gone out to work at public administrations to provide their services to the country will immediately return to their posts. It is time to return to strengthen the armed forces! "He also announced the issuance of a social security law for the Armed Forces, which will ease the payment of social benefits, while promised to "improve the living conditions" of the military. Maduro has until next December 31 to rule by decree as a result of an enabling law approved last year by the National assembly. On Sunday, the opposition achieved full control of Parliament by winning two-thirds of the seats in last week parliamentary elections, ending 17 years of Chavista hegemony. The new assembly will be installed on 5 January. Maduro has until next December 31 of the enabling law that allows him to rule by decree.

U.S. AND CUBA TO RESUME DIRECT MAIL SERVICE

      
The U.S. and Cuba took another step toward normalizing relations Friday by agreeing to test direct mail service between the two countries for the first time in more than 50 years. The announcement comes less than a week before the first anniversary of the historic Dec. 17 announcement by President Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro that the Cold War foes would begin re-establishing diplomatic relations.

    Until now, mailing items to Cuba was a complicated, highly regulated process that made it difficult for Americans to ship letters or items to friends or relatives on the island. The U.S. Postal Service has an entire page on its website explaining the long list of regulations set forth by the Department of Commerce. And most shipments go through third-party countries, such as Canada and Mexico. The U.S. and Cuban governments will start a pilot program in the coming weeks that will ship some parcels directly between the two countries. According to a statement from the Cuban Embassy in Washington, D.C., the program will test the technical aspects of direct shipments as well as security screening procedures required by both countries.

     The statement said the plan is to completely expand mail services in the near future. The deal was struck during a meeting in Miami on Thursday that included diplomats and postal service officials from both countries. Those talks were one of several sets of negotiations that have been taking place. Earlier in the week, officials from both sides held the first talks in Havana on the billions of dollars of financial claims each country feels it is owed. Other face-to-face negotiations have included changes to migration laws, efforts to work together on environmental issues and the evolving banking relationship between the countries.

NICOLAS MADURO PROMOTES JUDGE IN DIVISIVE LEOPOLDO LOPEZ CASE 

    
Venezuela's outgoing congress has promoted a judge who drew international criticism by handing down a long prison term to opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez. Lawmakers from the ruling socialist party named Judge Susana Barreiros as head public defender days after the opposition won a landslide congressional victory that represented the first major change to the balance of power in more than a decade. Opposition leaders took the Thursday appointment as an affront and said the appointment showed how little respect the ruling party has for human rights and international opinion. Outgoing National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello responded gleefully, saying the more the "bourgeois" opposition attacks the judge, the more it solidifies her revolutionary credentials.

     In September, Barreiros gave Lopez the maximum possible sentence of 14 years in prison for his role in leading anti-government street protests that turned bloody in 2014. The appointment was part of what promises to be a string of actions aimed at consolidating power before the socialists hand over the legislature to the opposition. Lawmakers also gave workers control of the National Assembly television station in a bid to keep it out of the hands of the opposition. Incoming congressmen have been eagerly planning what to do with the channel, having been frozen out of the state television landscape for years, and mostly ignored even by privately held stations. Opposition lawmakers have promised to use the channel to air investigations into topics like corruption. It's unclear whether the new congress will be able to take it back from the newly created worker collective in January.

     Next week, the outgoing congress is expected to name a group of new judges to the Supreme Court, where they will serve out 12-year terms unless the opposition congress manages to impeach them. Unlike the president, Venezuela's high court has the power to negate legislation. Opposition lawmakers have pledged to pass a bill granting amnesty to Lopez and some 70 other activists considered political prisoners as their first order of business. Hardliners are also promising to launch a campaign to recall unpopular President Nicolas Maduro. That could free Lopez from prison and pave the way for him to run for president. Maduro in a speech this week reiterated his claim that Lopez is a murderer, and promised to fight any amnesty law. He also threatened to put on hold public housing projects because the people had failed to support him when he needed it.

December 12, 2015

BELIEVE IT OR NOT! DESPITE A RESOUNDING DEFEAT, FIDEL CASTRO CONGRATULATES MADURO FOR HIS "BRILLIANT AND BRAVE SPEECH"  

       
  FORMER CUBAN DICTATOR FIDEL CASTRO congratulated Venezuelan illegitimate President Nicolas Maduro for a "brilliant and brave speech" he gave the night he suffered a severe setback in legislative elections. "I join the unanimous opinion of those who have congratulated you on your brilliant and courageous speech on the night of Dec. 6, barely knowing the verdict of the polls," Castro said in an inspirational note to Cuba's key ally. Castro, 89, had formed a socialist alliance with Maduro's predecessor, Hugo Chavez. Following Castro's retirement in 2008 and Chavez's death in 2013, that alliance has been continued by Fidel's younger brother and current President Raul Castro, and by Maduro, Chavez's former vice president who won his own presidential election after Chavez died.

      Maduro's election continues a long string of victories for the style of governing known as "Chavismo," but Venezuela's opposition trounced the ruling Socialists in the Dec. 6 election to win the legislature for the first time in 16 years. Raul Castro issued a 45-word statement of support beginning "Esteemed Maduro" the morning after the vote. Fidel Castro sent a 537-word "Dear Nicolas," finding glory in Venezuela's history of independence, first from colonial Spain under Simon Bolivar and more recently from the United States under Chavez.

      "The millions of children and young people who today attend the best and most modern public schools are those of Venezuela," Castro wrote, praising what he considered the accomplishments of the Socialist Party."The same is true of its network of healthcare centers belonging to a people who are brave but impoverished by centuries of looting by Spanish colonialism and later by the big transnationals that extracted from her womb, for over a hundred years, the best of the immense wealth of petroleum with which nature endowed the country." Cuba has some 30,000 doctors and nurses working in Venezuela, an OPEC country that, in exchange, provides Cuba with more than 100,000 barrels of oil per day.

CUBA MARKS HUMAN RIGHTS DAY WITH DOZENS OF ARRESTS

       Cuba marked Human Rights Day by detaining dozens of opposition activists or barring them from leaving their homes Thursday to prevent protests against the communist authorities, rights groups said. In Havana at least a dozen activists were arrested when attempting to attend a gathering arranged by the "Ladies in White" dissident movement, AFP reporters said. The independent news portal "14ymedio" said its team was prevented from leaving its building in the capital. There were similar scenes elsewhere on the island -- as is usually the case in Cuba on international rights day, when authorities stamp down on dissent.

     At least 11 people were arrested in Guantanamo, on the eastern tip of Cuba, and six more in the capital when they attempted to meet up, said dissident Jose Daniel Ferrer, leader of the Patriotic Union of Cuba rights body. In Camaguey, central Cuba, another 23 activists were intercepted by authorities, he said. It came as Attorney General Dario Delgado asserted that Cuba has no political prisoners, only jailed common criminals who "call themselves dissidents." "It is sometimes said there are political prisoners here. There aren't," Delgado told the official Communist Party daily Granma. "The majority of those who call themselves dissidents are common inmates who have been attracted by counter-revolutionary organizations, internal or external, and receive payments directly or indirectly," he said.

     "But they aren't prisoners of conscience." Among foreigners imprisoned on the island, Delgado said some were common criminals and a "very few" were "terrorists or someone who came to Cuba to subvert the political order." President Raul Castro's communist government in January released 53 inmates whom Washington considered political prisoners, as part of a historic rapprochement between the two former Cold War foes. But the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, which is illegal but tolerated by the government, says another 60 political prisoners remain in Cuban jails. International human rights groups say the government routinely harasses and temporarily jails opposition activists to prevent them from taking part in public demonstrations or attending private meetings. In Cuba, all opposition to Communist Party rule is forbidde

TALIBAN CAR BOMBERS' TARGET SPANISH EMBASSY GUESTHOUSE IN AFGHANISTAN 

    
TERRORIST car bombers apparently belonging to the Taliban have attacked a Spanish embassy property in Afghanistan’s capital Kabul this afternoon. At least two people were killed when the terrorists drove a car packed with explosives at a guest house belonging to the Spanish government, which was used to accommodate important dignitaries. Witnesses reported hearing a loud blast following by piercing rounds of gunfire, suggesting that the militants may have managed to escape from the vehicle and engage in a firefight with security services. Local news sites reported that some of the terrorists may have managed to hole up in the building. Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said this evening that as many as four attackers were barricaded inside the guest house and were exchanging fire with Afghan special forces units. He added that the terrorists were presumed to be wearing suicide bomb vests.

     Afghanistan's deputy interior minister Mohammad Ayub Salangi said that two guards were killed and seven others were injured after the militants detonated a car bomb at the gate and stormed the building. Speaking on Twitter, he added that two attackers were killed and one was injured during the subsequent military operation against the terrorists. The Taliban have claimed responsibility for the atrocity. US officials said they believe a team of at three terrorists - one suicide bomber in the car and two gunmen alongside - were involved in carrying out the atrocity. The attack took place at 5.55pm local time in the Shirpur district of the capital, just a stone’s throw from the heart of the Afghan government and a clutch of foreign embassies.

      A host of high-profile politicians including Afghan Vice-President Abdul Rashid Dostum and senior government officials live in the area. It is believed that three terrorists took part in the attack. The Taliban, which is growing in confidence following a decade in exile during the American and British occupation of the country, has claimed responsibility. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said a Spanish policeman had been killed in the attack, adding that embassy staff were safe and unhurt. Three other Spaniards were evacuated from the area as a gun-battle with the militants raged on. Meanwhile a Spanish official at the embassy told the Wall Street Journal: “We are under pressure, but we are OK. The situation is still going.”\ Interior ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said that a car bomb had been involved in the attack but said he could not provide details of casualties at this point in time. He said: "Kabul Police are at the area of explosion, we will be releasing details as it emerges.”

December 11, 2015

ARGENTINA'S MAURICIO MACRI SWORN IN AT CEREMONY SNUBBED BY CRISTINA FERNANDEZ   

       
  Mauricio Macri was sworn in as president of Argentina on Thursday in a ceremony that was boycotted by his predecessor, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, after a bitter argument over how and where to hold it. At the close of an often-divisive eight-year presidency, Kirchner appeared to be trying to complicate the transition to Macri, making a string of controversial moves during her last days in office. But few people in Argentina thought she would go as far as refusing to appear in person to hand over power, and the operatic twist gripped the nation’s attention. “It’s an embarrassment; we don’t deserve it,” said Daniel Asasme, 48, a general contractor. “This transition should be for the good of democracy.”

     In his inaugural speech, Macri appealed for unity and a new political culture. “Confrontation has taken us down the wrong paths,” he said, “We have to remove conflict from the center of the stage and replace it with meeting points.” Insisting that Argentines could overcome the country’s political polarization, he added: “If we Argentines dare to unite, we will be unstoppable.” Macri, 56, won the election last month with a largely noncombative campaign that appealed to many Argentines’ desire for a less fractious style of politics. On Thursday morning, Mr. Macri made his way in a white sport-utility vehicle, escorted by guards on horseback, from his home here to the congressional palace for the formal swearing-in.

     Historically, that ceremony was followed by a second one at the presidential palace, where the transfer of power was symbolized by the outgoing president placing a sash on his or her successor and handing over an ornate baton. In recent years, though, that ceremony, too, was held at the Congress. Macri preferred to revert to the traditional system, but Mrs. Kirchner wanted to stick to the more recent practice, and pressed the point sharply. The two sides argued over whether Article 93 of the Argentine constitution, which calls for the president to be sworn in before Congress, governed the handover ceremony as well, and over who had the final say in the matter. Kirchner wrote in a post on her website on Sunday that “Dec. 10 is not his birthday party.” She also noted one of her objections to holding the two ceremonies separately: she was in a hurry to leave the capital and get to Patagonia to see her sister-in-law, Alicia Kirchner, sworn in as a state governor there.

U.S. TO BRING DRUG TRAFFICKING CHARGES AGAINST HIGH-RANKING VENEZUELAN MILITARY OFFICIALS

       The United States will bring formal drug trafficking charges against a number of high-ranking Venezuelan military officials, including multiple generals, a Spanish news source reported. Two federal prosecutors told ABC , a leading newspaper in Spain, that the U.S. did not want to be seen as influencing the recent parliamentary elections in the South American country and for that reason are holding off on announcing the charges for a few more days. The newspaper also stated that these charges are not connected to the recent drug trafficking arrests of two nephews of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, who are set to face trial in the United States on Dec. 17.

    No evidence has been made public that directly links Maduro to the drug trade, but his two nephews, Efraín Antonio Campos Flores and Francisco Flores de Freites, reportedly told the Drug Enforcement Administration that they were acting in connection with Diosdado Cabello, speaker of the National Assembly, and former Venezuelan Minister of the Interior Tareck el Aissami — both close allies of the president. ABC reported that the new charges were based largely on the testimony of alleged Colombian drug traffickers detained by U.S. authorities, who gave details about how the Venezuelan military facilitated the shipment of cocaine through the country. While this is not the first time Venezuelan officials have been rumored as involved in the drug trade – a major from the country’sarmy reserve was caught with 667 kg of cocaine in a small aircraft in 1983 – experts say government involvement began to flourish under the late President Hugo Chavez and continued under the command of Maduro.

      Earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal published a report – citing the U.S. Justice Department – that said an investigation by federal prosecutors in New York and Miami and a DEA unit found "extensive evidence" to suggest Speaker Cabello was one of the heads of a suspected trafficking cartel involving military officers and top government officials. News of the new drug trafficking charges comes days after Maduro and the rest of the Chavista loyalists suffered their worst electoral defeat in recent memory. The National Electoral Council confirmed earlier this week that the opposition gathered under Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) obtained the 112 seats needed to get the supermajority. It is the first time the opposition has wielded power since Chavez kicked off the nation’s socialist revolution in 1999. Maduro announced that he would arrange a meeting with the elected congressmen to speak about the country’s economic situation. However, opposition leaders spoke in strident terms, a prelude to what's likely to be a period of intense political fighting in a deeply polarized country mired in an economic crisis.

NICOLAS MADURO ADMITS ERRORS AND CORRUPTION LED TO HUMILIATING ELECTORAL DEFEAT 

    
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro Wednesday blamed errors by his government, the bureaucracy, and a "corruption that enveloped revolutionary policies" for Sunday's electoral defeat for his party, but maintained the main enemy is the "fascist right." "Either we in Venezuela get out of this logjam thrust upon us by this economic war, by our own errors, the bureaucracy, the corruption that enveloped our revolutionary policies (...) or the country is going to witness a huge conflict," said Maduro in a brief speech outside the Miraflores presidential palace, addressing dozens of people who had gathered to show their support to him following Sunday's parliamentary elections, which the opposition won with 112 seats against the 55 won by Chavistas or followers of former President Hugo Chavez.

     Maduro said such a conflict will affect the entire Latin American and Caribbean region. "There is set of problems, of accumulated mistakes that our people should know I am perfectly aware of, and have called for a dialog with the people," he added. He asked his supporters to identify the main enemy, the counter-revolutionary fascist right and its allies, who, he said, conceal themselves in various posts. He reiterated his call for a debate among Chavista forces to build "a revolutionary strategy and turn this crisis into a revolutionary crisis," to strengthen the so-called Bolivarian revolution. He added he wanted "a rebirth of the popular forces of the Bolivarian revolution," and said he was ready to lead a "radical, socialist, and popular revolution."

      Referring to the impending Jan. 5 beginning to the new National Assembly - the Venezuelan Parliament - he accused the new opposition legislators of intending to repeal laws of "popular power," of threatening to shut down pro-government media such as the Parliament channel and radio, the state-run broadcaster VTV, and the regional Telesur, and of wishing to put an end to Petrocaribe, an oil alliance of many Caribbean states with Venezuela. Calling the opposition victory a fascist counter-revolution, he warned the bourgeoisie not to mistake a passing setback to the revolution as its victory. "Sometimes, revolutions need to face adversity and difficulty, the lash of counter-revolution to wake up," he asserted.

December 10, 2015

 ILLEGITIMATE PRESIDENT NICOLAS MADURO ASKS HIS MINISTERS TO RESIGN   

       
 illegitimate Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro announced on Tuesday that he had asked all his ministers to resign for a cabinet reshuffle "applying the Chávez's method." "A debate is open for a revision of the revolution," said President Nicolás Maduro during his TV show "In touch with Maduro" from the Mountain Barracks in Caracas, where the remains of late president Hugo Chávez lie. Maduro thanked all the ministers for his work and dedication, and highlighted that his government "advocates the culture of dialogue and consensus." "On Friday, I will enact a Decree-Law on Labor Stability for the workers for 2016, 2017, and 2018," Maduro announced. "We came, even since Commander (Hugo) Chávez came, to ensure labor stability," the president added.

     President Maduro asserted that during anti-government protests staged in 2014, crimes against humanity were committed, so he deemed it inappropriate the proposal of the newly elected opposition group of the National Assembly to enact an Amnesty Law. "Serious crimes against humanity not subject to statutory limitations pursuant to the Constitution were committed during the guarimbas (anti-government protests), so I say as head of State," President Maduro remarked. Congress Speaker Diosdado Cabello asserted on Tuesday that the National Telecommunications Commission (Conatel) was consulted and an agreement was reached to assign the license of state-run TV channel National Assembly Television (ANTV) and National Assembly Radio station to the workers.

"They perform a great function for Venezuela, so the people are well informed, that is why we propose workers to administrate those media," Cabello explained. Cabello added that the National Assembly would appoint the new Public Defender on Thursday, and added that 12 new magistrates of the Supreme Tribunal of Justice would be designated before December 31. Earlier on Tuesday, after greeting the head of the electoral support group of the Union of South American Nations (Unasur), Leonel Fernández , Venezuelan Minister of Foreign Affairs Delcy Rodríguez highlighted on Tuesday that the Venezuelan government has respected people's will expressed at the polls on Sunday. "The people of Venezuela have spoken up, the will of the Venezuelan people shall be respected," the minister told the press after the meeting.

CRISTINA FERNANDEZ REFUSES TO ATTEND MAURICIO MACRI'S INAUGURATION CEREMONY

       A personal spat between outgoing Argentinean President Cristina Kirchner de Fernández and her successor, President-elect MauricIo Macri, over Thursday’s inauguration details, has fueled political tensions in the South American country on the eve of the ceremony. Fernández de Kirchner has decided she won’t attend the inauguration after the two side’s transition teams met to try to settle their differences, according to her advisors. The dispute also revolves around what time Macri should be officially declared president. The dispute revolves around where the transfer of powers should take place, and at what time Macri should officially be declared president. In a dramatic announcement, the president’s team said that Fernández de Kirchner would not be present to hand over the blue and white presidential sash and baton because of the conditionsbeing imposed by her successor.

     At one point, they defined the entire situation as “a coup d’etat” in reference to a prosecutor’s decision to accept Macri’s legal request to be declared president-on-duty from after midnight Wednesday. This would permit him to personally organize the inauguration ceremony. As is common in Argentinean politics, the brouhaha between the outgoing leftist Peronist leader and the incoming conservative president has captured the attention of the nation. “There isn’t much difference between a coup d’etat and this,” said Óscar Parrilli, chief of Argentina’sintelligence services and a close advisor to Fernández de Kirchner.

      On Monday, Macri filed a petition with Buenos Aires Judge María Servini de Cubría – the same magistrate who is investigatinghuman rights abuses committed in Spain during Francisco Franco’s dictatorship – to determine at what time Thursday she believed he will be considered president. He also asked the judge to decide where the ceremony should take place. Macri, who was elected on November 22, believes that he should be officially declared president after midnight Wednesday and officially take office at noon following his inauguration. The prosecutor sided with Macri, but Judge Servini de Cubría has not made her final decision. “It looks like Macri is the one who doesn’t want the president to handover the sash and baton; they were the ones who started this legal fight,” said Wado de Pedro, general secretary of the Office of the Presidency and a negotiator in the transition team.
 

BELIZE REJECTS COSTA RICA PROPOSAL TO MOVE STRANDED CUBAN MIGRANTS; FAVORS REGIONAL SOLUTION 

    
The government of Belize on Tuesday rejected a proposal from Costa Rica to move nearly 3,000 Cuban migrants stranded at that country's border with Nicaragua through Belize. In a statement, Prime Minister Dean Barrow's government said the proposal was considered in a meeting with his Cabinet, but they decided it is a regional problem and should be handled as such. "At this juncture, the government of Belize is unable to make any commitments outside of a regional arrangement," the statement said.

     Costa Rican Foreign Minister Manuel Gonzalez expressed disappointment. "We feel deeply disillusioned with Belize's decision," Gonzalez said in a statement. "Without a doubt, this decision complicates significantly the situation of the migrants in Costa Rica and delays their exit from the country." Nicaragua, a close Cuban ally, closed its border to Cuban migrants in mid-November after Costa Rica granted them transit visas to travel across its territory, sparking a diplomatic spat between the Central American neighbors. That has left nearly 3,000 Cubans awaiting a resolution at the border. Costa Rica had proposed to bypass Nicaragua by flying the Cubans to Belize so they could continue their journey in hopes of reaching the United States, where they would receive automatic residency under U.S. law. Belize lies on the southern border of Mexico.

     Gonzalez said Costa Rica would continue looking for a way to move the migrants through Central America and for additional financial support to cover their care while in his country. The Costa Rican government warned Cuban migrants who have not yet entered the country that they should not come because conditions do not exist to receive them. Some 45,000 Cubans are expected to move through South and Central American countries to the U.S. border this year. The Cubans fear that with the normalization of relations between their country and the United States that the special immigration privileges they enjoy in the U.S. could come to an end.

December 9, 2015

JOHN KERRY CONGRATUATED VENEZUELANS ON THE PARLIAMENT ELECTION     

       
 The United States urged on Monday political sectors in Venezuela to engage in dialogue to tackle economic and social challenges, and he added thatWashington was willing to support such effort. US Secretary of State, John Kerry, congratulated Venezuelan on Sunday's legislative election, in which ruling socialism lost its majority in the National Assembly. The United States has had for years a difficult relation with Venezuela, which has been very critical of Washington in the current Nicolás Maduro's administration and previously with late President Hugo Chávez.

      "Venezuelan voters expressed their overwhelming desire for a change in the direction of their country," Kerry said in a press statement. He also urged "Venezuelan electoral authorities to continue to tabulate and publish voting results in a timely and transparent fashion." On Sunday, the electoral victory of opposition coalition Unified Democratic Panel (MUD) punished the government of Maduro owing to the serious economic and social crisis in the oil producing country, Reuters reported.

      This is the first time in 16 years that "chavismo" loses its majority in the 167-seats National Assembly. "Dialogue among all parties in Venezuela is necessary to address the social and economic challenges facing the country, and the United States stands ready to support such a dialogue together with others in the international community," Kerry stressed. For his part, the spokesperson of the White House, Josh Earnest, said that the electoral result shows the desire of Venezuela for "a change in the political direction." However, he remarked it was too soon to know whether this would result in some modification in the relation between Caracas and Washington.
The High Representative of the European Union, Federica Mogherini, issued a communiqué on the Venezuelan election in which she called for constructive dialogue "to the benefit of all its citizens."

TURKEY THREATENS TO RESPOND TO RUSSIA'S ROCKET LAUNCHER PROVOCATION

       Amid reports of an imminent war between Turkey and Russia, Turkey has summoned the Russian ambassador after a serviceman on the deck of a Russian naval ship allegedly held a rocket launcher while the vessel passed through Istanbul this weekend. Turkey accuses Moscow of “provocations” after the serviceman was spotted holding a rocket launcher on his shoulder while the naval ship was passing through the territory of Turkey, according to The Sydney Morning Herald. Relations between Ankara and Moscow have sharply escalated since the Turkish military last week shot down a Russia jet in its airspace. Russia’s NTV news channel broadcasted a footage with a serviceman brandishing a rocket launcher on the deck of a naval ship Caesar Kunikov as it passed through the Bosphorus Strait in Istanbul on Saturday. The ship was allegedly en route to Syria.

     “For a Russian soldier to display a rocket launcher or something similar while passing on a Russian warship is a provocation,” Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu? told reporters, according to The Sydney Morning Herald citing the Hurriyet news site. “If we perceive a threatening situation, we will give the necessary response.” With the Bosphorus providing the only naval passage to the world’s oceans for the Russian Black Sea fleet, a post-war treaty obliges Turkey to allow all naval ships to pass the region during peacetime. Ever since the Turkish military brought down the Russian warplane, the Kremlin has introduced economic sanctions, which will cost Turkey approximately nine billion dollars, according to AFP. NTV also said that as the Caesar Kunikov was passing through, three NATO frigates with Canadian, Spanish and Portuguese flags had been moored.

       As a response to the incident with the Russian serviceman allegedly holding a rocket launcher, Turkey has summoned the Russian ambassador. Turkey has formally expressed its outrage over the incident, with Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu calling it a “provocation.” The incident with Turkey – a NATO member state – shooting down the Russian warplane has already been called the most alarming military encounter between NATO and Russia’s armed forces in over 50 years. It has already triggered quite an uproar in geopolitics with many analysts wondering if this is the beginning of a major military confrontation between Russia and NATO with the involvement of the U.S. “The worse case being a conflict between the United States and fellow nuclear armed state, Russia,” according to Zachary Yost of The Canal. With extremely high chances of the conflict between Ankara and Moscow spiraling into a war between NATO and Russia, U.S. experts are weighing in on whether the United States should or should not risk American soldiers’ lives to save Turkey.

IRAN TESTS ANOTHER MID-RANGE BALLISTIC MISSILE IN BREACH OF UN RESOLUTIONS 

    
Iran has carried out a new medium range ballistic missile test in breach of two United Nations Security Council resolutions, a senior U.S. official told Fox News on Monday. Western intelligence says the test was held Nov. 21 near Chabahar, a port city in southeast Iran’s Sistan and Baluchestan Province near the border with Pakistan. The launch took place from a known missile test site along the Gulf of Oman.

     The missile, known as a Ghadr-110, has a range of 1,800 – 2000 km, or 1200 miles, and is capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. The missile fired in November is an improved version of the Shahab 3, and is similar to the precision guided missile tested by Iran on Oct. 10, which elicited strong condemnation from members of the U.N. Security Council. “The United States is deeply concerned about Iran's recent ballistic missile launch," Samantha Power, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., said in a statementafter the last Iranian ballistic missile test in October. President Obama mentioned the Iranian missile test during a press conference on Oct. 16 and said the United States was preparing to brief the U.N. sanctions committee. He added that it would not derail the nuclear deal.

      "I think what we'll be doing is we'll review, as we have in the past, any violations of U.N. resolutions, and we'll deal with them much as we have in the past," Obama said of the October incident. A senior administration official told Fox News on Monday the White House was "aware" of reports of the missile test, but had "no further comment at this time." Iran appears to be in a race against the clock to improve the accuracy of its ballistic missile arsenal in the wake of the nuclear agreement signed in July. One day after Tehran and six world powers signed that nuclear accord, the UN passed resolution 2231, which compels Iran to refrain from any work on ballistic missiles for 8 years. UN Security Council Resolution 1929 was passed in 2010 and bans Iran from conducting ballistic missile tests. The Security Council is still debating how to respond to Iran's last test in October.

December 8, 2015

IN PEACEFUL VOTING VENEZUELAN OPPOSITION WINS BY LANDSLIDE; MADURO ADMITS DEFEAT       

       
 The opposition coalition won at least 99 seats in the incoming 167-seat legislature, electoral authorities announced after midnight Sunday. The ruling party won just 46 seats. The 19 remaining races remain up for grabs but if enough are won by the opposition it could give the coalition a two-thirds supermajority needed to strongly challenge President Nicolas Maduro's grip on power. The streets of the Venezuelan capital of Caracas broke out in shouts of joy, fireworks and car honks after National Electoral Council President Tibisay Lucena announced the partial results six hours after polls closed. Within seconds, Maduro took to the airwaves to recognize the opposition's win, saying that despite an adverse result Venezuela's democracy and constitution had triumphed.

     But he recalled the long history of coups in Latin America in blaming opponents trying to sabotage the oil-dependent economy and destabilize his rule for what he called a “circumstantial” loss.“I can say today that the economic war has triumphed,” Maduro said in a televised address from the presidential palace surrounded by the socialist party's top leadership. Opposition leaders meanwhile spoke in strident terms, a prelude to what's likely to be a period of intense political fighting in a country already deeply polarized. “The country wants change and that change is beginning today,” Jesus Torrealba, head of the Democratic Unity opposition coalition, told supporters at a hotel in wealthy eastern Caracas.

     The result marked the opposition's first major electoral victory since Chavez became president, with Venezuelans tired of rampant crime, routine shortages of basic goods and inflation pushing well into triple digits. The economic crisis has worsened with this year's slump in oil revenue, which funds almost all public spending. Turnout was 74%, well above past parliamentary elections and nearing participation levels normally seen in presidential voting in Venezuela. Some hardliners are vowing to seek a recall referendum to cut short Maduro's term before it ends in 2019. Their work will be easier if they obtain a two-thirds majority of 112 lawmakers -- still a possibility if enough of the undecided races break the opposition's way. But reining in Maduro, who became president after Chavez died in 2013, will be tough. Maduro's near-complete grip on other branches of government like the Supreme Court mean he can easily outflank a hostile congress. And some have already floated the idea that outgoing lawmakers can pass a law granting Maduro special decree powers to ride roughshod over the new congress, which won't be sworn in until January.

CUBA AND U.S. TO DISCUSS SETTING CLAIMS ON PROPERTY

       Representatives of Cuba and the United States will meet on Tuesday in Havana to begin negotiations on settling decades-old outstanding property claims for the thousands of American citizens and companies whose assets were confiscated after Cuba’s revolution, according to several people briefed on the coming talks. The meeting is considered a major step because the United States’ trade embargo against Cuba was initially enacted after Fidel Castro, the Cuban leader at the time, expropriated land from American companies. Nearly 6,000 people and corporations lost homes, farms, factories, sugar mills and other properties totaling $1.9 billion. Now, for the first time, Cuba has agreed to meet to consider settling those losses. The State Department is expected to announce the meeting on Monday. A Cuban Embassy spokeswoman declined to comment.

      “This meeting is an enormously big deal,” said Mauricio J. Tamargo, the former chairman of the Foreign Claims Settlement Commission, an agency within the Justice Department that adjudicates claims against foreign governments. “The Cubans have up till now never recognized these claims as legitimate or something they are even prepared to discuss. It has never happened in 56 years since the revolution began and they started confiscating American property.” When Castro declared victory in 1959, many Americans were forced to flee their homes and give up their land. His government later started expropriating large companies, and eventually nearly 900 corporations filed claims. The list of claimants includes Exxon, Texaco, Coca-Cola and Starwood Resorts.

       The issue had long been a stumbling block to the re-establishment of relations between the United States and Cuba. But the Obama administration restored diplomatic relations last year, with the vague assurance that property claims would be on the long list of issues to be taken up in bilateral talks. Cuba would be unlikely to accept any deal that did not include lifting the trade embargo, which has for years been the nation’s top priority. Although many people assume that Cuba does not have the money to pay off settlements, it could pay claims by offering American corporations with outstanding claims a first shot at the Cuban market, said Richard E. Feinberg, whose Brookings Institution study on the issue will be released Tuesday. If the payments were spread out over 10 years, Cuba probably has the money to pay the original claims, but perhaps not the 6 percent interest levied by the claims commission, Mr. Feinberg said. “It’s a historic moment, if you consider that U.S.-Cuban relations collapsed in the early ’60s in large measure when Fidel Castro moved to expropriate the large U.S. holdings there,” he said. “Now 55 years later, the two sides are sitting down to say, how do we settle this?”

PENTAGON: US AIRSTRIKES KILL ISIS HEAD IN LIBYA, AL QAEDA SENIOR OFFICIAL IN SOMALIA 

    
The Pentagon confirmed Monday that U.S. airstrikes last month killed the head of the Islamic State in Libya. Abu Nabil was targeted in a Nov. 13 airstrike carried out by F-15 aircraft in the city of Derna, Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said.

     Nabil, also knowns as Wissam Najm Abd Zayd al Zubaydi, was an Iraqi national and former al Qaeda operative before assuming his role as head of the Islamic State’s Libya affiliate. The Pentagon also confirmed the death of a senior leader of Abdiraham Sandhere, known as “Ukash.” Sandhere, a senior leader of al Shabaab, an al Qaeda affiliate in Somalia, was killed on Dec. 2. Two other al Shabaab-affiliated associates were also killed in the strike.

     “Ukash's removal from the battlefield is a significant blow to al-Shabaab and reflects the painstaking work by our intelligence, military, and law enforcement professionals,” Davis said. “This is an important step forward in the fight against al-Shabaab, and the United States will continue to use the tools at our disposal- financial, diplomatic, intelligence and military - to dismantle al-Shabaab and other terrorist groups who threaten United States, interests and persons.”

December 7, 2015

PRESIDENT OBAMA USES PRIME TIME TO REASSERT VOICE ON NATIONAL SECURITY       

   
President Barack Obama appears to be playing catchup to the national mood on terrorism.  His prime-time speech Sunday on the threat posed by Islamic State militants and their admirers may have been only his third address ever from the Oval Office. But he has spoken at least a dozen times about terrorism in the weeks since the Paris attacks and the massshooting in San Bernadino. And it apparently hasn’t worked. The unusual venue of a prime-time TV address came as aides sought a way for Obama to reassert himself on the issue of national security. Despite frequent comments in past days, he’s faced criticism from Republicans for what seemed a dispassionate response to the back to back attacks, doubts about his strategy from members of both major parties, and the defection of 47 Democrats in the House of Representatives who did not accept his assurance that his administration already is doing an adequate job screening refugees from Syria.

    Yet much of Obama’s failure to drive the conversation his way - that his strategy against the Islamic State is working however slowly - stems from his own rhetoric, particularly his reluctance to speak in anger or alarm about terrorism. Last week, for example, his White House lagged behind his own FBI director last week in saying flatly that the San Bernardino attack was an Islamic jihadist-inspired “act of terrorism.” Obama’s reticence – also on display in the aftermath of the 2009 Fort Hood, Texas, shooting and his administration’s initial focus on a video-inspired demonstration after the 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya – is seen as deliberate caution by his White House and dismissed as insufficient to the task by his critics.

     The hesitancy followed by acknowledgment reflects an inherent tension in Obama’s presidency: He campaigned for the White House, and has spent much of his seven years in office promising to turn the page on war and the threat of terrorism only to be forced to react by events in a convulsing Middle East. John Hudak, a fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution who studies the presidency, said Obama’s “overly cautious” tendency comes from a naturally deliberative personality as well as a rare attitude for politician that if he doesn’t have anything to say then he won’t say anything. Americans often want to hear from their presidents, though, in the way Bill Clinton spoke after the Oklahoma City bombing and George W. Bush after 9/11.

CNE ANNOUNCES PARLIAMENTARY VOTE RESULTS: OPPOSITION WINS 99 SEATS; GOV'T WINS 46 SEATS

         
President of the National Electoral Council (CNE) Tibisay Lucena explained that the election was held in peace. She praised the behavior of voters, poll workers and the Plan República security operation. Lucena informed on Monday early morning that the parliament vote held on Sunday, December 6, was held in calm and peace. She praised the behavior of voters, poll workers and the Plan República security operation. "Turnout was extraordinary, at 74.25%," she added.

     From the CNE press office in Caracas, along with CNE directors Sandra Oblitas, Socorro Hernández, and Luis Emilio Rondón, Lucena informed that the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) won 24 nominal deputies elected nominally and 22 deputies chosen by list, for a total of 46 deputies. For its part, opposition umbrella group Unified Democratic Panel (MUD) got "72 nominal deputies and 27 by list, for a total of 99 deputies," she noted. Some parliament seats are yet to be defined, namely electoral constituency N 2 in Amazonas state; constituency N 4 in Carabobo state; constituency N 1 in Guárico state; and constituency N 2 in Lara state, Lucena commented. Indigenous deputies have not been awarded yet.

     "Still pending are 17 nominal members, 2 lists in which the differences are very small" and 3 indigenous deputies with regard to the election, said Lucena in a short statement before television cameras and in the presence of the rectors, representatives of the electoral missions of Unasur and the Council of electoral experts of Latin America (Ceela) from the tent of the international press center. " Lucena said that in the second election bulletin the results of the election day will be extended. He asked the winners celebrate and respect by those who lose. "Ganó the village of Venezuela", Lucena added. Minutes earlier, the President of the CNE praised the performance of Plan Republic, the Venezuelan people, table members and voters for their performance during the “civic” election day, that she qualified, in addition, as transparent and of high quality.

FBI: TREATING CALIFORNIA MASS  SHOOTING AS 'ACT OF TERRORISM' 

    
The FBI is officially investigating Wednesday's massacre by a married couple at a California social services office as an act of terrorism. The assistant chief of the FBI's Los Angeles office, David Bowdich, said Friday a number of pieces of evidence have turned up to make it a terrorist act, including signs the massacre was extensively planned. Bowdich would not talk about the specific evidence, but he did say it includes crushed cell phones found in a garbage can near the site of the killings. He said there were "telephonic connections" between the suspects and others, and that the phones could reveal "potential golden nuggets."

    Bowdich would not confirm media reports that the wife involved in the massacre, Pakistani Tashfeen Malik, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in a Facebook message apparently posted when the shooting started. FBI Director James Comey said there is no indication the couple was part of a terrorist cell or network. He also said much of the evidence in the case "does not add up." Pledges of loyalty to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Badhdadi have been reportedly found in social media posts by others who carried out mass killings. Some Islamic State supporters posted messages on Arabic social media hailing the massacre and congratulating the killers. Some of them promise more attacks in the the United States.

     Two attorneys representing the Farook family criticized the media for what they say is a rush to judgement that this was a terrorist attack simply because the suspects were Muslim. Lawyers David Chesley and Mohammad Abuershaid said they and their clients met with the FBI for four hours and say the family is totally shocked because the couple never showed extremist or aggressive behavior and never mentioned Islamic State. The FBI's Bowdich said it is unknown at this time if anyone else in the United States or overseas was involved. He also said it is possible that a second attack may have in the planning stages but made it clear to the public and reporters hungry for information that this will be a very long and complex investigation. Friday, news crews were given a tour of the couple's apartment by the building's landlord. Reporters peered into closets and rifled through documents.

December 6, 2015

FEARS RISE IN VENEZUELA OVER MADURO'S REACTION TO POSSIBLE ELECTORAL DEFEAT       

   
Venezuelans are becoming increasingly concerned about what may happen during and after Sunday’s parliamentary elections. Voter polls say the opposition will win, which would put the chavista regime in an unusual situation after 17 years in power. Critics say they cannot predict how the Nicolás Maduro administration will react, while the government has escalated its persecution of business leaders over the last few days of the campaign. “If the nightmare were to come true and we were to lose, the revolution would acquire new methods and a different character,” the president said on his weekly television show on Tuesday. “If we lose the elections, the revolution will continue and we will keep fighting from the streets.” The opposition has interpreted these statements as threats similar to those he made weeks ago when he told voters the regime must win “at all costs.”

      This marks the first time that Maduro – whose approval rating has hit rock bottom compared to his predecessor, Hugo Chávez – has clearly acknowledged the possibility that the regime might lose its parliamentary majority. According to the polls, the opposition will gain total control in Congress, yet everything suggests that, if it wins, it will be by a slim margin. With a simple majority – 84 seats – it will be difficult for the opposition to call for a revocatory referendum or pass an amnesty law for political prisoners, its top two campaign promises. Former Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero arrived in Caracas on Tuesday at the invitation of the Venezuelan president and the National Electoral Council (CNE) as an international observer. The Spanish politician held one of his first meetings on the ground with Venezuelan Foreign Affairs Minister Delcy Rodríguez.

      According to the website of the Venezuelan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the ex-prime minister said his role is “to help things run smoothly and maintain the highest level of understanding and cordiality; there should be no interference in the domestic affairs of a country.” “My task, my spirit, my way of approaching this electoral process will be with humility, with respect for the sovereignty of the people of Venezuela and helping so that election day responds to the best democratic principles of transparency and guaranty,” he said to the local media. Minister Rodríguez said the meeting with Zapatero was “very sincere” and that he will meet with President Maduro before Sunday’s elections. Some opposition leaders have also confirmed their desire to meet with the Spanish politician. The former prime minister is expected to be in Venezuela until December 8.

OPEC FAILS TO REACH AGREEMENT ON PRODUCTION LEVELS

         
The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries ended a contentious meeting Friday without any agreement to restrain production, leaving members to continue pumping crude at near-record levels into an already oversupplied market. The meeting at OPEC headquarters dragged on for more than six hours and was marked by deep fissures within the group, as some members pushed hard for a production cut that might push oil prices up from their recent $40-$50-a-barrel range, less than half what they were 18 months ago. As in two previous meetings, however, the group couldn't overcome a fundamental divide. Members demanding output cuts, such as Iran and Venezuela, were unwilling or unable to offer production cuts themselves. Those most able to cut, Saudi Arabia and its neighboring Persian Gulf states, refused unless all members participate along with some producers from outside the organization.

      Oil prices fell on the news, with the U.S. benchmark down 2.7% at $39.97 a barrel and Brent crude down 1.9% at $43. The group considered cutting production but decided that a reduction "even of 5%" wasn't likely to push prices higher if non-OPEC producers, which make up about two-thirds of global production, join in cutting, said OPEC President Emmanuel Ibe Kachikwu, Nigeria's petroleum minister. Instead, the group will maintain its current production—about 31.5 million barrels a day—and "closely monitor market developments in the coming months," according to a statement released at the end of the meeting. "We just felt comfortable to wait and watch," said Mr. Kachikwu. The group, which gave up individual production quotas several years ago in favor of an aggregate production ceiling, also appeared to have largely done away with those restraints, as well. The ceiling, which has been set at 30 million barrels a day, has been breached routinely by the group.

      The 30 million-barrel figure wasn't mentioned in OPEC's news release after the meeting, an unusual omission. Asked about the ceiling at the news conference, Mr. Kachikwu and OPEC Secretary General Abdalla Salem el-Badri emphasized that the group would continue at the "current production level."Leaving the meeting, one minister, Iran's Bijan Zanganeh, said, "We have no ceiling now." OPEC's moves on Friday mean there is no end in sight for the glut plaguing the crude market. Supplies have outstripped demand by as much as 2 million barrels a day at times this year as OPEC, Russia and the U.S. pumped hard in a competition for market share. Stockpiles held by developed nations rose to a record of nearly 3 billion barrels at the end of September, according to the International Energy Agency. OPEC's move on Friday was an affirmation of its decision late last year to abandon its role as the world's swing producer of oil, meaning it could regulate its supplies to keep oil prices stable.

COSTA RICA ASKS BELIZE TO ACCEPT STRANDED CUBAN MIGRANTS

    
Costa Rica has asked Belize to accept nearly 3,000 Cuban migrants who have been stuck at the Costa Rican border with Nicaragua for weeks, authorities said Friday. The plan envisions flying the migrants to Belize, which is on Mexico's southeastern border. From there the Cubans would presumably continue north toward their stated destination: the United States, where special migrant policies let them stay once they touch U.S. soil.

     Costa Rican Foreign Minister Manuel Gonzalez said Belize's council of ministers will meet Tuesday to consider Costa Rica's proposal. Gonzalez said authorities ruled out transporting the migrants to Guatemala because officials in that Central American nation said conditions did not exist to guarantee their safety. "Mexico insists that (the Cubans) must be received from another country — that they cannot arrive directly in Mexico," he said. "For that reason we had been thinking of Guatemala, and now we are considering Belize." Nicaragua closed its border to the Cubans in mid-November after Costa Rica granted them transit visas to travel across its territory, sparking a diplomatic spat between the Central American neighbors.

     Cuba has seen a spike in outward migration since last year's announcement that it and the United States would restore diplomatic relations. Many Cuban migrants say they have chosen to leave now out of fear that detente could bring an end to the U.S. migration policies that benefit them, although U.S. officials say no change is in the works. Cuba and Nicaragua, a close ally, blame the long-established U.S. policies for encouraging islanders to leave and say they are responsible for a brain-drain of the young and skilled. Recently Ecuador announced that it would begin requiring Cubans to obtain visas to enter its territory. Until now, the South American country had been a favored launching point for many U.S.-bound Cuban migrants because he didn't require foreign visitors to get a visa. From there, Cubans often made their way north by land through Central America and Mexico. Gonzalez said Costa Rican authorities were negotiating with airlines about possibly transporting the Cuban migrants. "I want to be very clear that the costs of transportation will have to be assumed by each person who travels," he said. "The government of Costa Rica cannot assume these costs."

December 5, 2015

ELECTIONS THREATEN TO DEAL VENEZUELA'S SOCIALIST PARTY UNPRECEDENTED BALLOT  BOX DEFEAT       

   
Venezuelans are stockpiling food and putting off plans as the South American country brims with excitement and dread ahead of elections that could hand the opposition control of congress for the first time since 1998. A loss would end a 17-year chain of electoral victories that the socialist movement founded by HugoChavez has often used to defend itself against allegations that it's undemocratic. Polls show the opposition coalition holding a 30 point lead, buoyed by voters defecting from the socialist party because of high crime, widespread shortages and triple-digit inflation. That puts it within grasping distance of a two-thirds congressional majority, an outcome that would breathe life into threats to recall Chavez's heir, President Nicolas Maduro, and back up claims that his party's mandate is crumbling. The socialists currently hold 99 of Venezuela's 167 legislative seats.

      It's also possible government opponents could win the popular vote by a landslide, but fail to gain that super-majority due to a voting system that favors less populated rural districts over opposition-leaning urban areas. Opposition leaders warning that a loss Sunday would amount to proof that the government committed vote fraud. Maduro's allies, meanwhile, ridicule the opposition for appearing to take a victory lap before ballots have been cast. At a weekend rally, Maduro shouted that he would "never surrender the revolution." "If the hard-core right-wingers win on Dec. 6, prepare for chaos, violence and protests that overwhelm this country," he said. The mounting tension has spilled into violence, with opposition candidates complaining of armed men surrounding their caravans and beating their aides.

     The fatal shooting of an opposition politician at a campaign rally last week increased already high levels of anxiety. Many Venezuelans are putting their lives on hold until after Election Day, delayingbusiness travel, putting off decisions and even holding back on taking cars in for repairs. On Saturday, shoppers with hand trucks mobbed a trading center where black market goods are sold, saying they were stockpiling pantry items just in case. The socialist party, which has won every national election except a 2007 constitutional referendum that would have expanded Chavez's powers, is trying hard to project a sense of electoral invincibility. "Seventeen years of victory," runs one ad tagline. Some of its tactics, including barring prominent opponents from running and handing out goodies like Chinese-made tablet computers, have drawn rebukes from the U.S. and other foreign governments who say the playing field is tilted.

OPEC RAISES CEILING, OIL FALLS AS VENEZUELA SENDS SOS

         
The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) said it would maintain crude production and raise its output ceiling to 31.5 million barrels of oil per day, from 30 million. Analysts didn’t expect the move and oil prices are moving lower. The price of U.S. oil fell nearly 3% to below $40 per barrel, while the international Brent price is down 2% to $42.94. The change brings official production numbers in line with existing production, which is thought to regularly exceed the stated ceiling. Venezuela’s oil czar, ahead of an election Sunday, has warned of an oil catastrophe if prices don’t rise. The Wall Street Journal reports that a group of countries led by Venezuela said it would push for a 5% production cut among OPEC members, who are meeting in Vienna today.

      Venezuela oil minister Eulogio Del Pinowarned prices would could fall from near $40 per barrel to $20 if OPEC doesn’t cut production. Cutting production means less revenue for oil-dependent economies including Venezuela, Nigeria and Russia, but the alternative is even less revenue if oil prices tumble even more. From WSJ: “The overproduction we have from OPEC is going to produce a catastrophe in the price,” Del Pino told reporters ahead of the OPEC meeting. But Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies are likely to defend market share in the face of competition from Iran and others. The goal: maintain low oil prices to hurt U.S. shale oil firms or drive them out of business, Reuters reports. It’s a cosmic shift. The Saudis and OPEC simply don’t have the same influence they had on production, now that the fracking-induced U.S. oil spigot is overflowing.

      This observation from Omar Al-Ubaydli, who directs a program at the Bahrain Center for Strategic, International and Energy Studies and is a fellow at the Mercatus Center atGeorge Mason University. “The view that Saudi Arabia can increase its profit by unilaterally cutting production is incorrect and outdated. Defending its market share is the right call in what has almost become a competitive market. As a result, Americans can look forward to low and stable gas prices for the near future … the high prices of yesteryear are extremely unlikely now, and in the future,” Al-Ubaydli writes.

A TOTAL OF 67 MINORS KILLED BY POLICE AGENTS IN VENEZUELA DURING FIRST HALF OF 2015

    
A statistical research conducted by the by the Director of Venezuelan Community Centers of Learning (Cecodap), Fernando Pereira, 67 teenagers and one child were killed by police agents during the first half of 2015 in the country. These results emerge from a hemerographic study carried out by Cecodap directorate. According to the organization's coordinator, Fernando Pereira, 53% of the killings occurred during confrontations with police bodies, 11% of minors were executed, and 8.33% died due to excessive use of force. "Most murders took place in popular sectors in exchange of shots with police agents.

     There are minors carrying firearms since they are 13 years old, and they belong to criminal bands. There are also cases, yet to a lesser extent, of abuse of power by police officers," Pereira said. The figures show that during the first half of this year 457 youngsters were killed, which stands for a 0.44% increase from last year when such murders stood at 455. The study revealed that of the 457 killed young, 326 were aged between 12 and 17 years old, the rest between two and 11 years. 91% of the victims were male and 8% females. Research hemerographic, according to Pereira, also emphasized the issue of school violence.

     From January to June this year, there were 226 theft in schools, 142 teachers protest, 79 protests of parents and representatives and 46 student unrest in the country. They also reported 12 robberies in schools, 9 to students and 10 students injured in these incidents, two of them by stabbing and one by a projectile. "In the monitoring carried out by the press were detected 16 cases of vandalism, 9 shootings", explained an expert. With regard to violence at home, in the first half of this year there were 36 cases of child abuse, 10 filicidios, six complaints of neglect, five cases of abductions of children and teenagers by a family member, and five deaths due to family neglect. 71% of the victims included in this chapter are under six years of age.

December 4, 2015

PRESIDENT OBAMA: "POSSIBLE" THAT SAN BERNARDINO ATTACK WAS TERRORIST-RELATED     

   
President Barack Obama on Thursday said it is "possible" that Wednesday's massacre in San Bernardino, California, was terrorist-related, while cautioning that it may take a while to determine the motivation of the shooting that killed 14 people and wounded 17 others. Speaking from the Oval Office after being briefed by his national security team, Obama again made a plea for a shift in Americans' thinking about guns, saying that "we all have a part to play" in preventing mass shootings. The president was limited, to a degree, in his policy response, as much is still unknown about the two suspects — Syed Farook, 28, and Tashfeen Malik, 27. They were killed in a police shootout miles from the city's Inland Regional Center, where the husband and wife opened fire on a holiday party for county employees.

     Dressed in black masks and tactical gear, armed with long guns and pistols, they entered a holiday party for county health workers in San Bernardino as it was in full swing. Before they fled, they had killed 14 people and wounded 17 others. Four hours later, as fearful residents were ordered to stay home and scores of officers swarmed the streets, authorities chased a black SUV carrying two suspects from a home in the nearby city of Redlands. As TV news stations broadcast live overhead, the chase spilled back onto San Bernardino's streets, where authorities and the suspects traded gunfire. When it was over, a man and woman connected to the assault were dead. One body lay in the street, blood pooling. Another was recovered from the vehicle. A police officer also was wounded in the firefight but is expected to survive. Late Wednesday night, San Bernardino police Chief Jarrod Burguan identified the people killed in the gun battle with police as Syed Rizwan Farook, a 28-year-old American citizen, and 27-year-old Tashfeen Malik. Police did not know where Malik was born or where she had lived.

     Burguan said police are "reasonably confident" that Farook and Malik, who may have been married or engaged, were the same two people who opened fire at the holiday party Wednesday morning. Farook, who had worked for the county health department for five years, left the party "under some circumstances that were described as angry.” Upwards of 14 people are dead and 14 more injured in a mass shooting in San Bernardino on Wednesday morning, said Police Chief Jarrod Burguan. While federal sources have told The Times that Farook left the party after an altercation, investigators said Wednesday night that the motive for the mass shooting was unclear. "Is this a terrorist incident? We do not know," said David Bowdich, assistant director of the FBI's Los Angeles field office. He later said that terrorism had not been ruled out as a motive. A third person was detained in the area where the pursuit ended, but authorities said they had not connected that person to the shooting. During the news conference, Burguan said police believe there were only two shooters.

LILIAN TINTORI REQUESTS MERCOSUR TO IMPOSE DEMOCRATIC CLAUSE ON VENEZUELA

         
Lilian Tintori, who is the wife of imprisoned Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López, requested the Common Market of the South (Mercosur) on Wednesday to enforce the "democratic clause" against the country and suspend it from the bloc, due to the detention and imprisonment of opponents of the regime ofPresident Nicolás Maduro, Efe reported. Tintori, who met in private with Paraguayan President Horacio Cartes, said she has "hope" that such clause will be approved by the Heads of State of Mercosur during a summit to be held on December 21 in Asunción, Paraguay. Argentinean President-elect Mauricio Macri said after his election that he would make at such summit a request to sanction Venezuela under this clause, which provides for the suspension of a member of the bloc in the event of confirming "breach of the democratic order."
Lilian

     Experts say a promise by Argentina's president-elect Macri to expel Venezuela from the Mercosur trade bloc seems unlikely to be fulfilled. Venezuela became a full member of the South American bloc in 2012 in an effort to link the region's most powerful agricultural and energy markets. Argentina's new leader, Mauricio Macri, says he'll push to remove Venezuela over its government's jailing of opposition leaders. Emphasizing his commitment, during his victory celebration Sunday night Macri took a picture with Lilian Tintori, the wife of Leopoldo Lopez, an opposition leader in Venezuela jailed early last year.

     An expulsion would be a huge shift for a region where several countries have left-leaning democratic governments with close ties to Venezuela. But Mercosur members and academics say it is unlikely to happen unless President Nicolas Maduro's government doesn't respect the results of Venezuela's crucial Dec. 6 congressional elections. "The conditions are not there," Uruguayan Foreign Minister Rodolfo Nin Novoa said after Macri won Argentina's runoff election. He was referring to the requirements of Mercosur's "democratic clause," which says a member country can be sanctioned if it has "broken the democratic order." Rupture of the democratic order is tantamount to a coup, political analyst Daniel Chasquetti said. "If Macri had read the democratic clause closely he would have realized that it's not that easy to apply to Venezuela today, except if something serious happens in the elections," Chasquetti said. Brazil and Paraguay have still to comment on the issue. Macri takes office Dec. 10, and Argentina's petition is likely to be reviewed during a Mercosur meeting in Asuncion, Paraguay on Dec. 21.

SPAIN URGES VENEZUELA'S NICOLAS MADURO TO GUARANTEE CLEAN CONGRESS VOTE

    
Spanish Minister of Foreign Relations and Cooperation José Manuel García-Margallo stressed his government has made a strong appeal to the Venezuelan government for it to guarantee a clean, fair, and transparent upcoming parliament vote on December 6. García-Margallo stated on Thursday that his government has voiced "deep concern" over the current situation Venezuela is facing, and he added that the country has been urged to "accept the results" of the upcoming parliament vote on December 6.

     In a meeting with journalists in Alicante and after been consulted about the legislative elections next Sunday, the Minister said that "there are serious concerns for what is happening in Venezuela, especially after the assassination of Adeco leader Luis Manuel Díaz." García-Margallo made special reference to the killing of local opposition leader Díaz, by saying that his government has requested that this crime be thoroughly investigated. We have made a strong and serious appeal to the Venezuelan Government, he said, "to ensure that the elections will be clean, fair, and transparent, that there will not be violence, and that Maduro will accept the outcome of the vote".

      After emphasizing that the "concern is great,” he informed that currently there is a Spanish mission, which cannot be called observation, to follow the activities during election day. In the country are representatives from the South American Union of Nations (Unasur) and several former heads of State or Governments, among them the Spaniard José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who have been "invited" by the National Electoral Council (CNE). " García-Margallo confirmed that on 11 December he will visit the Colombian city of Cartagena de Indias on the occasion of a meeting of Ministers of the Latin American community of Nations, and predicted that "the Venezuelan situation will be central topic" in the discussions. "

December 3, 2015

IMPEACHMENT PROCEEDINGS OPENED AGAINST BRAZIL'S ROUSSEFF     

   
Impeachment proceedings were opened Wednesday against Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff by the nation’s speaker of the lower house of Congress, a sworn enemy of the beleaguered leader. A special commission in the lower house, in which all political are proportionally represented, must now way the decision of speaker Eduardo Cunha to open the proceedings against Rousseff based on accusations her government broken fiscal responsibility laws. If the commission approves the impeachment proceedings, it then moves to a full vote in the lower house where two-thirds of deputies must approve it.

    While the impeachment is expected to get by the commission, most political analysts say that at this time, it is not expected that the measure will get the two-thirds votes necessary for it to move forward. Rousseff began her second term in office on Jan. 1 and has been hobbled by a massive political corruption scandal centered around a kickback scheme at state-run oil company Petrobras. Rousseff herself faces no accusations of wrongdoing in the corruption scandal _ while Cunha, the house speaker who introduced the impeachment proceedings, faces corruption charges before the Supreme Court for allegedly taking millions in bribes. Since her narrow re-election, Rousseff has faced repeated calls for her to be impeached or step-down _ but with no direct link to the Petrobras scandal, her opponents’ calls have until now gone unheeded. But Brazil’s federal audit court in October ruled that Rousseff broke the nation’s “fiscal responsibility” law by using money from state-run banks to fill budget gaps and pay for government social spending.

    At the same time, Eduardo Cunha, the embattled speaker of Brazil's House of Representatives has vehemently denied reports that a document seized in a corruption probe suggests he received nearly $12 million to support legislation favoring a top investment bank. In a late-night barrage of about 20 tweets on Sunday, Eduardo Cunha dismissed the reports as a "true absurdity," saying they appeared to be part of a plot against him. The denials followed the publication Sunday of a story on the website of Rio de Janeiro's O Globo newspaper saying investigators seized the document implicating Cunha in the home of an aide to Sen. Delcidio do Amaral, the governing Workers' Party's leader in the Senate. Amaral, his aide, Diogo Ferreira, billionaire banker Andre Esteves and an attorney were detained last week in connection with the mushrooming probe into corruption at Brazil's state-run oil giant Petrobras.

U.S., CUBAN EXPERTS UNITE TO COMBAT TRAFFICKING OF CUBAN MIGRANTS

         
The United States and Cuba have agreed to maintain expert-level meetings to improve their way of dealing with gangs engaged in trafficking Cuban migrants, the U.S. State Department said Tuesday. The decision came out of the biannual Migration Talks held yesterday in Washington. “The U.S. and Cuban delegations agreed to expert-level meetings on how both governments will contribute to combating the smuggling organizations that take advantage of Cuban migrants,” the State Department said Tuesday in a communique.

     “The U.S. delegation expressed its concern for the safety of the thousands of Cuban migrants transiting through Central America,” the statement said. Some 4,000 Cubans who emigrated from their country via Ecuador in an attempt to eventually reach the United States, are currently stranded in Costa Rica following Nicaragua’s refusal to let them enter that country. At yesterday’s meeting, the Cuban delegation asked the United States to end its present immigration policy toward its citizens on grounds that it encourages emigrant trafficking and illegal immigration, as demonstrated by the current crisis in Costa Rica.

     The United States made it clear that it “has no plans to alter current migration policy regarding Cuba,” the State Department confirmed Tuesday. The 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act and the policy known as “wet foot, dry foot” benefits Cubans who manage to set foot on U.S. territory and who can apply for permanent residency a year later, while those intercepted at sea are returned to the island. Also in Washington today was a meeting about collaborating against drug trafficking, attended by officials of the Cuban government and of several U.S. agencies, including the State Department, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Coast Guard.

RUSSIA THREATENS ECONOMIC SANCTIONS AGAINST TURKEY

    
On Thursday, Russia announced it would be imposing economic “response measures” against Turkey. Prime minister Dmitry Medvedev said his government was developing sanctions that would hit Turkish interests across Russia’s economy, which could include a trade embargo, limiting investments, shutting down tourism and transportation links, as well as suspending major joint construction projects. The government has given itself two days to finalize the measures but it left an ax hanging over Turkish involvement in swathes of the Russian economy. Russia-Turkey Relations Heading Into 'Dead-End,' Putin Says as Turkey Refuses to Apologize for Downing Plane Russia Suggests Downed Warplane Was 'Planned Provocation' Turkey is one of Russia’s biggest trade partners, with trade worth $44 billion dollars last year and Russian exports there worth $15 billion. It’s also a major Russian tourist destination, with 4 million Russians visiting a-year.

     Turkish goods account for around 15 percent of Russia’s vegetable imports, worth roughly $1 billion, and Turkish companies hold a major share of the construction market here. All of these sectors are now under threat. Russian government agencies have lined up to declare that the sanctions may apply to their sector. Russia’s tourism agency said it would halt sales of trips to Turkey and transport officials warned Russian ports and airport could close to Turkish vessels. Crimea’s regional government announced it was freezing Turkish projects worth $500 million. Officials, ranging from Russia’s migration service to the agricultural ministry, have denounced what they called Turkish “treachery”. “In the property sector, especially in the commercial sector, there are quite a lot of Turkish companies working and we don’t exclude that part of them will go from some major projects in the country. Our trust in them as partners is undermined,” Mikhail Myen, head of Russia’s Construction Ministry, told the business paper, RBK.

     Vladimir Putin lamented that Turkey had “thoughtlessly” destroyed what he called the “unprecedented” good relations with Russia and demanded that Turkey apologize for downing the jet on the Syria border. Turkey has refused to apologized and insisted the Russian Su-24 bomber had violated its airspace, a claim Russia disputes. Putin laid into the Turkish government again on Thursday night, calling president Tayyip Erdogan’s suggestion that Turkey had been unsure the plane was Russian “nonsense” and lashing out at the United States as well, saying Russia had informed American officials where the jet would be but they had done nothing to prevent the shooting down. It was unclear yet how tough Russia sanctions will be in their final form. Sergei Aleksashenko, an economist with the Brookings Institute, said he believed the Kremlin was looking for “something loud and visible”.

December 2, 2015

CUBAN AMERICAN NATIONAL FOUNDATION WORKING ON PROGRAM TO HELP CUBANS STUCK IN CENTRAL AMERICA    

   
While thousands of Cubans thwarted in their journey to the United States remained stuck in Central America, the United States and Cuba met in Washington on Monday for regularly scheduled migration talks. Going into the biannual talks, Cuba made it clear that it thought U.S. policies were acting as a stimulus for Cubans who travel to other Latin American countries and then make their way north to the Mexican border with the United States where they ask to be admitted under the Cuban Adjustment Act. The Cubans said such policies encourage illegal migration and violate the spirit and letter of 1996 migration accords signed by the two countries.

     The Cuban Adjustment Act allows Cubans — even those who arrive without visas — to be admitted to the United States and become permanent residents a year and a day after their arrival. Alex Lee, deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, and Josefina Vidal, the Cuban Foreign Ministry director general for the United States, led their respective delegations. In Miami, the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) said Monday that it was working on a program to help the Cubans stranded in Central America. It is similar to the Foundation’s Exodus program, which helped some 10,000 Cubans in various countries around the world in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union, said Jorge Mas Santos, president of CANF. The Foundation is working closely with the U.S. administration to try to find a solution to the Central American problem, said Mas Santos at a news conference.

     “It isn’t easy,” he said. “There are complications but we will find a solution for our brothers.” He said CANF was trying to come up with a creative solution so the Cubans wouldn’t become “a burden” on the United States and on “the people who pay taxes in this country.” Also taking part in the news conference was graffiti artist Danilo Maldonado, known as El Sexto, who was released from Cuban jail on Oct. 20 and is on a visit to the United States. He emphasized the need to come up with a solution for those marooned in Central America, but said it was also important for Cubans to remain in Cuba to promote change there. “They aren’t alone and we’re not going to leave them alone, but we can’t give out a prize for emigration. To leave, to escape can’t be a solution for Cuba,” he said. Maldonado was held for 10 months in Cuba without trial after being accused of disrespect. He was arrested with two pigs that were painted with the names “Fidel” and “ Raúl,” which he had hoped to use in a performance art piece.

HILLARY CLINTON PRESSES VENEZUELA TO UPHOLD WILL OF VOTERS

         
In an interview with news agency Efe, former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lamented the situation facing Venezuela, where, in her view, democracy "has taken a step backwards." "I am very upset about what is happening in Venezuela. I think it's a setback. Venezuela was one of the first democracies (in the continent), and for a long time there was a positive approach on how to solve problems, how to leverage the many natural resources of Venezuela, on the challenges of the people," she told Efe. In her words, since Hugo Chávez came to power and now, under Nicolás Maduro, "the country has taken a step back," and Venezuelans have limited opportunities, while "democracy is being undermined." She said that on several occasions she has asked the Venezuelan governmentto "respect human rights and democracy in the country, to conduct fair elections and allow people the right to protest and demonstrate in democracy.

     "Given the rapprochement with Cuba and the consequent legitimacy of the US in the rest of the continent, Clinton hoped the other countries of the hemisphere to come together "to achieve peaceful change" in Venezuela. Clinton says she is "outraged at the cold-blooded assassination" of an opposition leader during a recent campaign rally. She spoke as more than two dozen parties compete in an election that represents the stiffest challenge in 16 years for Venezuela's ruling socialist party. The slaying of a Venezuelan opposition leader at a campaign rally is becoming an international flashpoint a week before critical congressional elections. The United Nations' human rights office called on Venezuela's government Friday to protect opposition leaders following the shooting death of a politician campaigning against the ruling socialist party ahead of the Dec. 6 elections.

     Opposition leader Luis Diaz was shot Wednesday night at a rally in central Guarico state. His party, Democratic Action, is part of an opposition coalition that is mounting the strongest challenge in 16 years to the socialist government amid worsening economic problems in this oil-producing country. U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said from Geneva that officials must ensure the safety of political opponents and others who question the state. "Democracy suffers greatly when the pre-election environment is marred by violence, threats and intimidation," he said. On Thursday, human rights groups jointed with the U.S. and the South American regional bloc UNASUR in expressing concern about political violence in Venezuela. The opposition says the past week has seen at least seven attacks on its leaders, marring what has been a hotly contested but previously largely violence-free campaign for the National Assembly. No arrests have been made in Diaz's killing, which Venezuelan officials have blamed on a dispute between gangs. President Nicolas Maduro promised a full investigation Thursday, and lashed out at the head of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro, for calling the slaying an indication of grave problems with Venezuela's democracy.

CUBA IMPOSES TRAVEL RESTRICTIONS FOR DOCTORS, NURSES AND HEALTH RELATED EMPLOYEES

    
The Cuban government announced Tuesday that it is re-imposing a hated travel permit requirement on many doctors, requiring them to get permission to leave the country in an attempt to counter a brain drain that it blames on the United States. It is the first major retreat in Cuba's policy of allowing unrestricted travel for its citizens, put in place in 2013 as President Raul Castro allowed new freedoms as part of a broad set of social and economic reforms. The announcement set off waves of anger and worry among Cuban doctors and nurses, members of one of the country's most respected and economically important professions. By midday, many Cuban doctors were trying to figure out whether quitting their jobs would free them of the travel limit. "Instead of resolving the real problems of Cuban doctors, which is that salaries are low and we are working with limited resources, this measure shows that there's no respect for the rights of citizens in Cuba," said Dr. Eduardo Herrera, a surgeon at Calixto Garcia Hospital in Havana's Vedado neighborhood.

     The government announced on the front page of state media that health professionals in specialties that have been drained by large-scale emigration in recent years will now be required to get permission from Health Ministry officials in order to leave the country. The measure potentially affects one-tenth of the country's work force, leaving very few families in Cuba untouched. The Cuban government cites free, universal health care system as one of the crowning achievements of its socialist revolution. Medical missions abroad are one of the most important sources of foreign exchange for the Cuban government, which receives tens of thousands of dollars a year in cash or commodities for each doctor it sends overseas. Official statistics show that 500,000 of the country's 5 million workers are health professionals. The new policy was announced hours after a meeting Monday between U.S. and Cuban negotiators in Washington to address a crisis in Cuban migration, which has reached its highest levels in at least two decades this year. Cuba complained that the U.S. said it had no plans to change Cold War-era policies that give automatic legal residency to Cuban immigrants.

     Like Herrera, many Cuban doctors cite low pay, poor working conditions and the possibility of well-compensated jobs in other countries as their primary reasons for emigrating. The government has raised medical salaries in recent years, but few doctors earn more than $80 a month, a fraction of what they would earn in medicine in other countries, or even as drivers or waiters in Cuba's booming tourist economy. "The migration of Cuban health professionals is a concern for the country," the government announcement read, blaming U.S. laws that aid Cuban medical emigration for having "the perverse objective of pushing Cuban health professionals to abandon their missions in other countries." Inside Cuba, many doctors and nurses complain that their profession has been devastated by waves of departures, with vital specialists now absent in many clinics and hospitals. The government announcement cited anaesthesiology, neurosurgery, obstetrics and gynecology and neonatal care as among the specialties worst hit by emigration of doctors. "The reaction to this will be big," one neurosurgery resident said Tuesday morning. "We doctors are pretty much fed up because they aren't managing our situation well."
 

December 1st., 2015

US SENATORS CALL FOR MULTINATIONAL FORCE IN SYRIA   

   
Two U.S. Senators Sunday said the United States should be part of a multinational force in Iraq and Syria to defeat the Islamic State (IS/ISIS/ISIL) and pressure Syrian President Bashar al-Assad out of power. The comments follow an essay by a U.S. foreign policy scholar arguing the need for up to 50,000 U.S. troops, initially, to confront the IS group and create a safe zone for Syrian refugees. Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, both Republicans, told U.S. television from Baghdad Sunday the U.S. must take part in a multinational force that McCain, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said will have two key objectives. "First, you have to, obviously, take out ISIS but, at the same time, you have to establish a no-fly zone that sends a message to Bashar al-Assad that he can stop barrel-bombing and slaughtering innocent men, women and children and driving millions into refugee status, which we are trying to cope with now," said McCain.

     Graham, also a member of the Armed Services Committee, was asked if the American people are prepared for another US ground commitment following the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. "They better be because, if we don’t destroy ISIL in Syria which is their headquarters, we’re going to get attacked at home. So, the region is ready to fight. The region hates ISIL. They’re coming after the Sunni Arab nations and Turkey hates ISIL. The entire region wants Assad gone. So, there’s an opportunity here with some American leadership to do two things, which is to destroy ISIL before we get hit at home and also to push Assad out, and I can’t overemphasize the influence of Iran. We’ve been here a day and a half. Iran is all over Iraq. They have filled in the vacuum created when we left and the region is very worried about Iranian dominance as well as ISIL," said Graham.

    Both McCain and Graham suggest the force required may need to be as high as 100,000, but Graham added that it would be comprised mostly of regional troops. "The kind of force that John and I are talking about is, 10 percent of the force would come from Western powers. The force we’re talking about will come from regional armies. There are large regional armies. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, they have regional armies. They would go into the fight if you put Assad on the table. So, most of the fighting would be done by the region," said Graham. Graham said the estimated 3500 U.S. troops in Iraq are insufficient to beating the Islamic State any time soon. McCain said he believes the provincial Iraqi capital of Ramadi, now in IS hands, will be taken back soon. "But, that’s only the beginning. There’s Fallujah, there’s Mosul and others. We need a more robust presence and Bashar al-Assad is a major cause of the refugees which are now flooding Europe and cause such consternation in the United States. A no-fly zone will provide a refuge at least for some of these refugees," said McCain.

LILIAN TINTORI REJECTS VENEZUELAN GOVERNMENT PROTECTION

         
Lilian Tintori, who is the wife of Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López, said via her Twitter account that she had been summoned late Saturday to meet with agents of the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (Sebin) to coordinate how she would be given police protection, yet she refused to attend

     The wife of Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López, Lilian Tintori, rejected the protection offered by the local government after they warned her she "is the target" of hirelings who charge USD 30,000 "per political crime." Tintori said via her Twitter account that she had been summoned late Saturday to meet with agents of the Bolivarian Intelligence Service (Sebin) to coordinate how she would be given police protection, yet she refused to attend. "I decided not to attend because who is pursuing me and threatening me is Sebin, (which is) the State's police," Tintori twitted, as she recalled her husband turned himself in the authorities last February after the local government reported there was evidence of a plot to kill him. "The regime now is saying they (the hirelings) want to kill me, just as they wanted to murder Leopoldo. Nobody believes them," Tintori stressed.

     Efe reported that Tintori highlighted that "terror is State's policy" in Venezuela, and that should something happen to her "the responsible is (VenezuelanPresident) Nicolás Maduro." "Life is the first fundamental right and the State is forced to guarantee it for everyone. It is not a favour," she stressed. During a rally on Sunday in Caracas, Tintori said that when he visited on Saturday her imprisoned husband, he had asked her not to risk herself, but to trust people. "We will go out to vote on December 6 and we will defend our vote with courage and organization, yet in peace," and candidates that become parliament deputies will enact an amnesty law "to free all political prisoners," Tintori stressed.

GUYANA SEEKS INTERNATIONAL SUPPORT OVER BORDER DISPUTE WITH VENEZUELA

    
Guyanese President David Granger announced on he would seek to reaffirm his territorial sovereignty over the Essequibo region, a disputed area with Venezuela. Additionally, he said he would seek international support in the next meeting of the Commonwealth of Nations to be held in Malta on 27-29 November this year. "We have always had the support of the Commonwealth, and we will continueworking with our allies in that organization to strengthen their support and convey a message to aggressor states, Venezuela in this case, that we are not alone," Granger said.

     The foreign ministers of Guyana and neighboring Venezuela were forced to hold an emergency meeting in Port of Spain, Trinidad last weekend seeking to ease tensions over an application by Guyana to the United Nations to extend the country’s continental shelf by a further 150 miles to allow investors to explore for deep sea oil, gas and other resources. Guyana announced its move to the U.N. last month, angering authorities in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas as political parties there prepare for various levels of elections. Seeking to use its decades-old claim to the entire western Essequibo Region to drum up public support and win media attention. Several Venezuelan opposition politicians urged the Maduro administration to deal firmly with English-speaking Guyana despite the fact that it had done nothing wrong by asking the U.N. to extend the shelf by up to 150 nautical miles from the current 200-mile exclusive economic zone limit that is enjoyed by many nations.

     Carolyn Rodrigues-Birkett and Nicolas Maduro Moros announced plans for their last Friday meeting just hours before they were to meet to discuss a number of key issues including the U.N. application, the perennial territorial dispute and others including trade and drug trafficking. Most of the major investment projects are located in Guyana’s Essequibo region, where Canadian and American gold, diamond, manganese, uranium, timber and other projects exist, but the Venezuelan claim remains firmly on the books. It seems that the ongoing border feud between oil-rich Venezuela and Guyana will be decided by the United Nations. The issue recently took a twist when reports coming out of the sister CARICOM state indicated that a ship travelling to Venezuela to collect fuel was turned back along with the country’s shipment of rice. Guyana’s Minister of Finance, Winston Jordan in an interview with this publication at the recent Caribbean High Level meeting here in Basseterre, explained that the country is looking for a “judicial settlement” on the issue, which he indicated was settled more than a century ago.

 





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