Tillerson’s tour raises possibility of embargo on Venezuela, cuts to ‘war on drugs’ aid

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s tour in Latin America has raised the possibility of a U.S. embargo on Venezuela and cuts on the aid the U.S. sends to strategic partners in the U.S. government’s war on drugs. 

President Donald Trump said he wanted to stop aid for counter-narcotics programs to countries that didn’t stem the flow of cocaine to the U.S. Most of the cocaine that makes it to the hands of U.S. consumers is coming from Colombia and Peru.

“I look at these countries, I look at the numbers we send them and we send them massive aid, and they are pouring drugs into our country and they are laughing at us,” Trump said Friday.  

After visits to Mexico, Panama and Argentina last week, Tillerson is in Peru Monday, and he plans to visit Colombia on Tuesday and Jamaica, a growing cocaine trafficking hub, on Wednesday before returning to Washington, D.C. 

Tillerson told reporters in Buenos Aires Sunday that the U.S. could also ban Venezuelan oil imports and restrict exports. Authorities believe the oil-rich country’s military has been protecting the transit of Colombian cocaine on its way to the U.S.

“One of the aspects of considering sanctioning oil is what effect will it have on the Venezuelan people, and is it a step that might bring this to an end, because not doing anything, to not bring this to an end is also asking the Venezuelan people to suffer for a much longer time,” Tillerson said during a news conference with his Argentine counterpart.

An embargo on Venezuela could hurt U.S. oil refiners. Cuban officials referred to Tillerson’s comments as arrogant and dismissive. Russia and China continue to expand their presence in Cuba and Venezuela. Tillerson has labeled them both as “imperial powers.”

Tillerson said former U.S. President James Monroe’s 1823 statement forewarning imperial powers against interfering in the affairs of Latin American states and U.S. expansion “is as relevant today as it was the day it was written.” 

Cuba’s Foreign Ministry chief for U.S. Affairs, Josefina Vidal, condemned Tillerson’s adoption of  The Monroe Doctrine, which remains a tenet of U.S. foreign policy and the U.S. position on Venezuela.  Trump’s administration has already issued individual sanctions to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and a list of his allies asking them “to return to the constitution.” 

Venezuelans who have found refuge in South Florida have asked U.S. officials to pressure Maduro to step down and allow multiparty elections.

Maduro, who has been in power since 2013, continues to accuse the U.S. of attacking his Socialist government and exiled Venezuelans in South Florida of plotting against him.  He is campaigning for another term in office after the Constituent Assembly — made up of only Socialist Party members who support him — called for elections in April. 

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U.S. diplomat talks about what it was like to work in Cuba

After volunteering for the Peace Corps in Peru, Vicki J. Huddleston spent many years serving in the U.S. State Department. She worked in Haiti, Madagascar and Mali. While representing the U.S. in Africa, she was deputy assistant secretary of state and deputy assistant secretary of defense. But it was her time in Cuba that was the most impactful.

Huddleston served as the deputy director of Cuban affairs and as principal officer in Cuba. Her service under two administrations inspired her to co-author “Learning to Salsa: New Steps in U.S.-Cuba Relations,” and she is promoting her second book, “Our Woman in Havana.” 

“When the U.S.  threatens, Cuba closes,” Huddleston said. “When the U.S. pulls back, then the Cuban people have more freedom.”

Huddleston said she favored former President Barack Obama’s policy, and the economic reforms that she says fostered the growth of the island’s private sector. President Donald Trump’s reversal of the policy, she says, has failed. She opposes the U.S. embargo. 

“It didn’t work,” Huddleston said. “It’s 50 years, let’s try something new.”

Huddleston believes an injection of capitalism would be more productive for both countries. She also believes there needs to be a gradual, but continual opening for human rights to improve. She views Cuban President Raul Castro’s step down to leader of the Communist party in April as more of a succession. 

“It’s an authoritarian government controlled more by the military than by the party,” Huddleston said. “Nobody has the ability within the country to challenge the rule of the Castros.”

Huddleston believes Cuban officials don’t know anything about the sonic attacks on U.S. embassy workers in Havana, but she thinks it highly likely that the Cuban military does know what happened.  The Cuban government continues to deny responsibility. 

Web Extra: Huddleston’s first meeting with Fidel Castro

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Fidel Castro’s firstborn son commits suicide, Cuban government reports

Fidel Castro’s firstborn son, Fidel “Fidelito” Castro Diaz-Balart, committed suicide Thursday in Havana, according to the Cuban government. He was 68.

Castro Diaz-Balart, who was the scientific adviser to the council of state, had been getting treatment for depression, Cuba Debate reported. He was also the vice president of Cuba’s Academy of Sciences. 

Castro Diaz-Balart was the son of Fidel Castro’s first wife Mirta Diaz-Balart y Gutierrez, who is the aunt of U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz Balart, Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a former U.S. congressman, and Jose Diaz-Balart, a journalist. 


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Group of young LGBTQ Cubans remains trapped at Amsterdam airport

Victor Manuel Dueñas hugged his mom, his partner and his partner’s mother at the Jose Marti International Airport in Havana on Saturday. The 23-year-old human rights activist boarded a flight to Russia heartbroken but hopeful. 

The flight to Moscow had a layover at the Amsterdam Airport Schiphol where Dueñas, his cousin Onasis Torres, who is gay, and five others remained Monday night waiting for authorities from the Netherlands to respond to their request for asylum. 

Many other Cubans used the Havana-Russia flight’s layover in Amsterdam to request asylum in the European Union before Dueñas and his group. He estimates hundreds of Cubans made it to Europe this way before authorities took notice. 

“Some of them passed through Amsterdam and after spending time in a camp, they went to France, Germany and Spain,” Dueñas said in Spanish. 

After the U.S. started to deport Cubans last year, activists say young Cubans continue to leave the island in search of opportunities and freedom, but their migratory routes have changed. They are looking for ways to make it to Europe. 

Dueñas, who advocates for freedom of speech and the rights of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community, didn’t have a lot of time to think about his decision to leave the Communist island. When authorities from the Netherlands noticed the spike in Cuban asylum requests, they decided to implement a new airport transit visa requirement starting Monday to dissuade more Cubans from landing exiting the airport. 

“We are the last ones who were able to arrive here to the airport in Amsterdam,” he said. “There are some here who have been here for five days waiting for diplomatic officials.”

Dueñas first caught the attention of Cuban authorities when he opened the Centro Comunitario de Cultura, a meeting place for advocates of human rights for the LGBTQ community, from his family’s house in Santo Domingo, a municipality in the province of Villa Clara. Hurricane Irma damaged the home Sept. 9.

Dueñas was already on their radar. He had worked for as a contributor for the Havana Times, an independent digital magazine founded in 2008 that promotes a diversity of opinion. The publication’s editor claims some of their contributors have been blacklisted and are no longer able to work for the state. 

Although Cuba has made great strides from the days Fidel Castro jailed gay men, Dueñas said there is no freedom for the LGBTQ community on the island. Cuban President Raul Castro’s daughter, Mariela Castro, an activist for LGBTQ rights in Cuba, continues to push for improvements in education and the legalization of same-sex marriage.

The Cuban government’s healthcare system offers treatment for those who are diagnosed as transsexual and cover the cost of sex reassignment surgery.  When the access started in 2011, Belgium assisted with specialists and financing. 

Dueñas believes his work in support of the Nosotros Tambien Amamos, or We Also Love, an independent campaign lobbying for the rights of the LGBTQ community upset Cuban authorities. He said police officers treat him and his friends as sex workers when they meet in groups.

“They treat us like second-class citizens,” Dueñas said. 

While at the Amsterdam airport Monday night, Dueñas was worried about having access to food and a restroom to take a shower. The thought of getting deported back to Cuba and ending up in a prison terrified him. He was ready to go to a camp in the Netherlands where he was likely to run into migrants from Venezuela and Haiti. They are also among the largest minorities requesting asylum in the European Union. 

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Roman Catholic priest says lack of freedom has Cubans living in fear

Amid decades of persecution of Roman Catholics on the island, Rev. Jose Conrado Rodriguez Alegre has faced his fears with courage several times for the sake of his parish.

In 1994, Rodriguez dared to ask Fidel Castro, who was educated in a Jesuit school and declared Cuba an atheist state when he took power in 1959, to “rectify” the course of the nation.

About four years later, Pope John Paul II met with Castro during a five-day visit to the island asking that he release political prisoners. The pope also celebrated a Mass in Havana’s Revolution Square that Rodriguez remembers. 

“A modern state cannot make atheism or religion one of its political ordinances,” Pope John Paul II said in Havana, adding that Cuba “needs to open herself to the world and the world needs to draw close to Cuba.”

Rodriguez; Rev. Castor Jose Alvarez de Devesa, priest from the parish of Modelo, in Camaguey; and Rev. Roque Nelvis Morales Fonseca, priest from the parish of Cueto in Holguin; signed a letter to Cuban President Raul Castro to mark the 20th anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s historic visit.

“In Cuba, there are votes, not elections,” the letter says. 

The priests are also urging Castro to allow free elections and promote freedom of expression and freedom of religion on the Communist island. They argue that the one-party system has silenced the Cuban people. 

“Our country lives in fear, lives in hypocrisy and a lie,” Rodriguez said.

Many know Rodriguez as an activist. This is why the Roman Catholic priest from the parish of San Francisco de Paula in Trinidad earned himself the nickname of the “Cardinal of the People.”

This isn’t the first time Rodriguez writes to Raul Castro. His first letter to the Cuban president was dated Feb. 5, 2009. He asked Castro to focus on the economic crisis that continued to drive young Cubans to abandon the island. He had hoped President Barack Obama and Cuban-Americans would help bring change to the island. 

“The recent election of a black citizen to hold the presidency of a country formerly known as racist and a violator of the civil rights of blacks, says that something is changing in this world,” Rodriguez wrote in 2009. “The laudable and fraternal concern of our brothers in exile before the weather phenomena that have recently beaten our people, and their generous, selfless and immediate assistance, are signs that something is changing here.” 

About three years later, Raul Castro greeted Pope Benedict XVI, who declared himself a “pilgrim of charity” and urged Cubans to move toward greater freedom and openness. He celebrated a Mass in Santiago de Cuba, 14 years after his predecessor’s historic Mass in Havana.  

“I am convinced that Cuba, at this moment of particular importance in its history, is already looking to the future, and thus is striving to renew and broaden its horizons,” Pope Benedict XVI said. 

In 2015, Pope Francis called on the Castro brothers and their Communist regime to set a global “example of reconciliation” with a culture of dialogue with the United States. During his nine-day tour, Fidel Castro was too frail to attend any of the ceremonies, so the Pope asked Raul Castro to convey his “sentiments of particular respect and consideration to your brother.”

Rodriguez said the three historic visits made an impact on the Cuban people but not on the government policies. 

“There have been changes, but I would refer to them as cosmetic,” Rodriguez said.

In April, Raul Castro is expected to step down. Miguel Diaz-Canel might be his successor, while Castro still leads the Communist Party. Rodriguez believes very little will change with the new leadership. The Roman Catholic priest wants free elections and more choices for Cuban voters. 

“They will maintain the scheme,” Rodriguez said. “There is one absolute power at the hands of the party.”

Quotes from the priest’s 2018 letter to Raul Castro:

– The monopoly and control of social media means that nobody can access public media freely.

– Cubans have the right to have educational alternatives and options for the education of thought, Cuban parents have the right to choose what kind of education they want for their children.

– Cubans have the right to participate as investors in the economy and in the negotiations of our country.

– Cuba is submerged in violent changes that would only add more useless suffering. We still have time to make a progressive process towards a plurality of options that allows a favorable change for all. But time is running out, I urge you to open the door.


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