Thursday, November 17, 2011

EU, Arabs seek U.N. assembly condemnation of Syria

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Britain, France, Germany and several Arab states will call for a U.N. General Assembly vote soon to condemn Syria for nine months of violence against anti-government protesters, German officials said on Wednesday.
The three European powers will submit a draft resolution on Thursday with the intention of putting it to a vote in the General Assembly's human rights committee next Tuesday, a spokesman for Germany's U.N. mission said.
He said German, French and British delegations met with some Arab delegations Wednesday to discuss the text and the outcome of an Arab League meeting on Syria in Rabat.
"There was strong support to go ahead with the draft resolution," he said. "Some Arab delegations even expressed their intention to co-sponsor the resolution."
Several diplomats told Reuters on condition of anonymity that Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, Morocco and Kuwait were considering co-sponsoring the non-binding resolution on Syria.
Diplomats said the human rights committee, which includes all 193 U.N. member states, was expected to approve the resolution. It would then go to a formal vote in a General Assembly plenary session.
The Arab League, which normally shies away from decisive action against its members, decided Wednesday to ask its experts to draft recommendations on economic sanctions against Syria, whose league membership privileges have been suspended.
The draft U.N. resolution "strongly condemns the continued grave and systematic human rights violations by the Syrian authorities."
Among the violations are "arbitrary executions, excessive use of force and the killing and persecution of protesters and human rights defenders, arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances, torture and ill-treatment of detainees, including children," said the draft obtained by Reuters.
The United Nations says at least 3,500 civilians have been killed.
The draft demands an immediate end to all rights violations and violence and urges President Bashar al-Assad's government to implement an Arab League road map agreed this month that called for an end to the bloodshed and the deployment of foreign observers.
"The Arab world has sent a very clear message," Germany's U.N. Ambassador Peter Wittig said. "The massive human rights violations and the suffering of the Syrian people have to stop."
Wittig said diplomats hoped the non-binding human rights resolution "will show Assad just how isolated he is" but it was "no substitute for (Security) Council action."
Last month, Russia and China vetoed a European-crafted Security Council draft resolution that would have condemned Syria's crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators and hinted at possible sanctions.
Germany, France, Britain and the United States have said they would like to revive efforts in the 15-nation Security Council to impose U.N. sanctions on Syria and have urged Moscow and Beijing to rethink their position.
(Editing by John O'Callaghan)

Russian military chief warns of nuclear war risks

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia is facing a heightened risk of being drawn into conflicts at its borders that have the potential of turning nuclear, the nation's top military officer said Thursday.
Gen. Nikolai Makarov, chief of the General Staff of the Russian armed forces, cautioned over NATO's expansion eastward and warned that the risks of Russia being pulled into local conflicts have "risen sharply."
Makarov added, according to Russian news agencies, that "under certain conditions local and regional conflicts may develop into a full-scale war involving nuclear weapons."
A steady decline in Russia's conventional forces has prompted the Kremlin to rely increasingly on its nuclear deterrent.
The nation's military doctrine says it may use nuclear weapons to counter a nuclear attack on Russia or an ally, or a large-scale conventional attack that threatens Russia's existence.
Russia sees NATO's expansion to include former Soviet republics and ex-members of the Soviet bloc in eastern and central Europe as a key threat to Russia's security.
Makarov specifically referred to NATO's plans to offer membership to Georgia and Ukraine as potentially threatening Russia's security. Russia routed Georgian forces in a brief August 2008 war over a separatist province of South Ossetia. Moscow later recognized South Ossettia and another breakaway Georgian province of Abkhazia as independent states and increased its military presence there.
Makarov warned that the planned pullout of NATO forces from Afghanistan could trigger conflicts in neighboring ex-Soviet Central Asian nations that could "grow into a large-scale war."
In its military doctrine, Russia has also described U.S. missile defense plans as another major security challenge, saying it could threaten its nuclear forces and undermine their deterrence potential.
Moscow has agreed to consider NATO's proposal last fall to cooperate on the missile shield, but the talks have been deadlocked over how the system should operate. Russia has insisted that the system should be run jointly, which NATO has rejected.
Makarov also said Russia is struggling to get enough recruits for the 1-million military, as the number of draftees has shrunk dramatically because of demographical changes.
He said that the military is aiming to gradually increase the number of contract soldiers and eventually form an all-volunteer army. He didn't mention a specific time frame.
The statement marked a sharp change of course for the top military brass who previously insisted that Russia needs to maintain the highly unpopular draft because an all-volunteer military would be too costly.

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Yoani Sanchez


Absurdities and Frustations on the Path to Self-Employment in Cuba

Posted: 11/16/11 08:14 PM ET

"I want a donut with meringue," says the kid in his red and white school uniform to a vendor who never stops walking back and forth. A wide band of cloth around his shoulders supports the wooden and acrylic box filled with cakes, cookies and pastries. Tony is the most famous baker in the neighborhood. He opened his first dessert kiosk over a decade ago and has passed through all the stages of the emerging private sector in Cuba: enthusiasm, annoyance, the numbers not adding up, and even turning in his license. Now he lives in a time of revival along with 346,000 self-employed workers who -- especially in the last year -- are prominent on the streets of the whole country.
This time Tony didn't want to keep the little shack outside the Tulipan train station where he sold so many peanut candies. The high price of leasing a space from the State made him give up his old post amid the bustle of the avenue and the whistles of the locomotives. Cleverly, he noticed that the license for street vendor has much lower taxes and decided to devote himself to walking the street corners outside schools. He figured that this way he wouldn't have to pay for electricity or securing his kiosk with half a dozen locks so it wouldn't be robbed in the night, much less have to feed the cops for free from his tiny counter. Giving up a fixed location for the mobility of his two legs seemed to offer only advantages.
In the fine print of the "street vendor" license, however, it is unclear how long Tony can stand in one place. Each inspector interprets in his own way how long these "nomadic dessert sellers" can occupy the same site. With the result that, so far this month, our neighborhood entrepreneur has spent so much in fines and free muffins to these implacable supervisors that the high costs of his previous license look like peanuts. Now, Tony has a line of children following behind him asking for a donut here and an empanada there, and he can't stop. He walks from Boyeros Street to tony 26th Avenue and asks himself why this emerging sector has to be plagued with so many absurdities, so many limitations. A decision is taking shape in his mind: to become part of the 25 percent of the self-employed who have permanently cancelled their licenses.

Yoani's blog, Generation Y, can be read here in English translation.
Translating Cuba is a new compilation blog with Yoani and other Cuban bloggers in English. 


The coming real estate ‘market’ in Cuba

Recently, we have heard and read all kind of assessments of the new measures Cuba has taken on housing rights for its citizens.
After 50 years of self-imposed isolation from most things Cuban, it is not surprising that Americans and Cuban Americans alike seem to be confused with what this new Cuban law ( Decreto Ley 288) means, for Cubans and for the United States. We long ago decided Cuba is a lawless country, so why bother getting acquainted with its laws.
Well, I just finished reading this new Cuban law in effect from Nov. 10 and I must confess my original enthusiasm is sorely deflated.
For one, there is no change in Cuban Property Law. Cuban substantive property law remains unaltered. All the new law does is modify a few articles in the Cuban Housing Law ( Ley General de la Vivienda), not its Constitution or even its Civil Code.
Those who claim that Cuba now allows private property rights either fail to understand how Cuban law has for years defined its citizens’ constitutionally guaranteed right to housing — propiedad personal over one “permanently occupied” place of abode — or fail to discern how far this right remains from what we call private property.
Nor is ownership of vacation homes anything new.
There is no sign that Cubans will be able to secure loans with their houses anytime soon. The old maxim laid down by one of the authors of Cuba’s first housing law, “Housing is to live in, not to live from,” remains firmly in place, meaning Cubans who crave a new, extra-thin, Blu-ray, HD, 3D TV set will still have to save for it.
The regime did make it all but impossible for a Cuban citizen to sell or convey his housing unit — there was only one possible buyer under the old law, the Cuban state, and you needed an administrative authorization from your neighborhood’s Municipal Housing Bureau for all exchanges or permutes — but both the Cuban Constitution — in Article 21 — and the Housing Law already allowed Cubans to dispose of or sell their housing rights.
The new law now allows Cubans to sell their housing units to another natural person (but not to corporations) or exchange them for profit, eliminating most administrative steps and all permits, and this is no small change. Still, it is too early to foretell the development of any meaningful real estate market in Cuba.
By the way, the driving force behind these changes was neither the U.S. embargo nor our Cuban-American congressional delegation, but rather the pressure from inside Cuba, subtly exerted by my colleagues in the Cuban legal profession (but why bother to point this out, if there are no “real” lawyers in Cuba . . .).
Two outstanding requirements under the new law: You need a civil-law notary to document the conveyance, and the title to the housing rights you are conveying must have been recorded before you transfer it. These are salutary requirements, since Cuba is revamping the recording system it had in 1959 — which was far better than anything we have ever had in the United States, where we are still looking for lost mortgage notes — and civil-law notaries (the real ones, not our Anglicized, robo-signing variety) are a lot more useful than the annual World Bank Doing Business litany would have you believe.
Transfer and inheritance taxes, previously exempted, will now have to be paid when a housing unit changes hands.
One thing remains petrified: If you leave Cuba for good, you cannot play this game. You are not even legally capable of inheriting your parent’s house. You need to reside in Cuba to be a party to any of the transactions now allowed. But you may now be able to sell the house you own before you come to Miami.
These changes are not small potatoes from the perspective of most Cuban citizens, and they should be celebrated and encouraged, not played down. But the socialist model is still the rule of law in Cuba.
Jose M. Palli is a Cuban-born member of the Florida Bar. He is president of World Wide Title in Coral Gables.
A possible US Senate Christmas gift to the Castros blocked by legislators
Nov. 15 - An eclectic group of senators blocked a version of the spending "minibus" that included a provision to lower trade barriers with Cuba when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) attempted to bring it to the floor on Tuesday.
The measure, which he attempted to attach to a pending energy and water funding bill, contained funding for financial services and state and foreign operations as well as the provision which would have allowed cash exchanges between Cubans and U.S. banks.
Florida Sens. Marco Rubio (R) and Bill Nelson (D) as well as Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), however, objected on grounds that such a provision violated Senate rules that prohibits appropriations bills from containing legislative language. The three senators also argued that the dictatorial ruling regime in Cuba is teetering and that lowering trade barriers could bolster its grip on power.
The parliamentarian sustained the senators’ objection and Reid quickly offered a second version of the legislation without the Cuba measure that included number of minor changes including one that would ensure all amendments remain germane.
That version however was shot down by Sen. Jim Moran (R-Kan.), the author of the Cuba provision, who commented that the new version was not the version that had come out of commitee. Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) also objected, complaining that bill spent too much and would fund abortion in Washington D.C. and around the world.
Because Reid could not find agreement on keeping the amendments germane, he "filled the tree" before attaching clean versions of the spending bill to the water and energy bill. The Hill
Cuban blogger: "If they change they sink; and if they don't change they sink"
Nov. 15 - I don’t envy the position of the government at all, even though I also don’t feel pity for any of our rulers. The economic situation in Cuba doesn’t look any better than five years ago. Lifting the prohibitions on what should have never been prohibited, like the legal regulations that for now keep people distracted, are in my opinion a way to gain time, and the confirmation of how wrong the managers of this country have been, the same ones that have been wrong time and time again over the last 50 years, but are still there today.
“We rectify or we sink” — those were the words of the President General, without any signs of their inertia giving way to action. Nothing appears to change, therefore, since we don’t rectify, we sink (that is to say, they sink, we arrived first).
But if we energized the country, we would have to make reforms that encourage the investment of capital and create a safe climate for investors, to start, and other reforms so radical that the government, as we know it and with all its members aboard, would go under.
If they change, they sink; and if they don’t change, they sink. There is the paradox. Regina Coyula

Another Wayne Smith absurdity
Nov. 14 - Throughout the years, the Center for International Policy's Wayne Smith has made an abundance of absurd remarks in support of Castro's dictatorship.
Yet, he always finds a way to top himself.
Yesterday, Smith told The Toronto Star that American development worker Alan Gross "deserved" to be imprisoned by the Castro regime, as he was distributing "rather sophisticated devices" in Cuba.
Those "rather sophisticated devices" were simply communication links for Cuba's Jewish community to be able to establish regular Internet connectivity.
It's only "sophisticated" in the eyes of a regime (and its supporters) that denies its people their fundamental human right to free information -- protected under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and thus, international law.
(Moreover, those "rather sophisticated devices" were cleared by Cuban customs upon Gross's arrival to the island).
But that's not all.
In the same breath, Smith condemns the conviction by U.S. federal juries of five Cuban spies for -- amongst other things -- penetrating military bases and conspiring to kill American citizens.
He calls it a "blot on the honor of the U.S."
To summarize, Smith believes the arrest and arbitrary conviction of Alan Gross for helping Cubans connect to the Internet is warranted, but the trials, convictions and appeals of five Cuban spies that led to the death of American citizens are a mockery.
That's absurd -- even for Wayne Smith standards. Capitol Hill Cubans
The Unreported Tragedy of Cuba’s Repressive Communist Regime
Nov. 12 - Cuba—to listen to, watch or read some of the media—is a place that has remained unbowed in the face of impoverishment by the U.S. embargo. Lately what you hear is that it is attempting to make bold reforms not just in the economy, but socially as well (it just allowed gays to marry!) The people still dance.
Only that the reality of Cuba bears little resemblance to the plucky little island narrative. Cuba’s penury has nothing to do with the U.S. decision not to trade with the communist island, but with the fact that the island is communist in the first place. If communism produced misery in Europe and Asia (where one half of Germany and Korea stagnated under repression while the capitalist halves of those countries thrived in economic and political freedom) why would the result be different in the Caribbean?
Communism is a human tragedy, enslaving the soul while failing to produce enough goods for the people trudging under it. Communist countries are large prisons; the borders must be closed lest the people escape. And within that hell there are smaller circles where the repression is intensified. It’s the Gulag, the re-education camp or, in Cuba’s case today, public beatings by government mobs for who speak up their minds.
One would think a journalist would want report on that, especially when—as is the case in Cuba today—the people have finally decided to risk it all and take to the streets to voice their opposition. Reality, however, is again otherwise.
In Cuba today there’s a growing and vibrant protestor movement, headed by a group of women called Las Damas de Blanco (The Ladies in White). Originally organized by the wives of political prisoners, it has now galvanized others to lose their fear and voice their anti-communist sentiments in public.
Their acts are dignified. They march to Mass on Sunday bearing flowers; sometimes they stand in squares and chant slogans or meet in each other’s houses.
The repression that Cuba’s communist regime has unleashed against these poor ladies is anything but dignified. They have been seized by government goons bused in for the occasion, pushed, scratched and beaten. In one case, in the city of Santiago de Cuba, these ladies were stripped to their waist and dragged through the streets. In another instance they were bitten. The founder of the movement, 63-year-old Laura Pollan, died in prison last month and her remains were returned to her family only after she was cremated. Read more

The real Cuba lies beyond the resort

For many Canadians, Cuba is a ray of sunshine during our bleak northern winters. After a morning of digging out from a snowstorm, who wouldn't dream of lounging on Varadero's white sands, frosty Cuba Libre in hand, or sipping a mojito in Havana at Ernest Hemingway's favourite bar, La Bodeguita del Medio?
But travel beyond Varadero's famous beaches and Hemingway's haunts and you'll find a smaller, more laid-back city on the opposite side of the island. Trinidad, in Sancti Spiritus province, isn't as well-known as other Cuban destinations, but it should be.
Located near the Ancon peninsula, its beaches rival Varadero's, and the city offers some of the best preserved examples of colonial architecture in the Caribbean. In fact, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated this city of 70,000 a world heritage site in 1988.
I stayed at a resort on the Ancon Peninsula, about eight kilometres from the city. I used my resort as a base, but spent most of my time trekking the cobblestone streets of the city.
The first day, I took a tour bus from the resort. The first stop was the Mirador de La Loma del Puentos, a lookout that provided a panoramic view of Valle de Los Ingenios, another UNESCO world heritage site. The valleys hold the ruins of several sugar mills from the 19th century.
During the 18th and 19th century, Trinidad was a major sugar hub, and the Spanish brought slaves from Africa to the area. At the industry's peak, there were 58 sugar mills in the area, but with the abolishment of slavery in 1886, the sugar industry began to decline. Against this historic backdrop, you can enjoy a mojito or ice cream from the lookout's bar.
Next stop was Trinidad's centre, Plaza Mayor.
The city was somewhat forgotten after the sugar industry's decline, with minimal new construction taking place, and the centre remains virtually the same as it was 200 years ago.
Pastel-coloured colonial mansions, many converted into museums, line the heaving cobblestone streets. You can spend all day poking through museums, but a must visit is the Palacio Cantero (Calle Simon Bolivar 423). Housed in a mansion that was built between 1827 and 1830, it features historic documents and artifacts. The mansion itself overshadows the collection, with its massive courtyard, Italian marble floors and lookout tower.
Although a steep and rickety climb, the journey to the top of the tower is worth it. The view includes the city's main square, which features Iglesia de la Santisima Trinidad (Holy Trinity Church), one of the largest churches in Cuba. From here, you can also see one of the most familiar landmarks in Trinidad, the yellow and white tower of the Convent of St. Francis of Assisi.
After my first taste of Trinidad, I was ready to explore the city on my own. For two Cuban convertible pesos (CUC) (just over $2 Cdn), you get a round trip bus from the Ancon Peninsula to the city centre. Like most things, you get what you pay for, and though cheap, the bus isn't always reliable. In the city, I waited at two bus stops but a bus never showed up and I ended up taking a cab back.
Back in the city, I scouted out casa particulars, the Cuban equivalent of a bed and breakfast. Since the 1990s, the government has allowed some small businesses; with the casa particulars among the most popular. In the three-kilometre area surrounding Trinidad's centre, there are 400 families who rent rooms. Look for a generic blue arrow above a home's door, which signals that there are rooms to rent inside.
My favourite casa was that of Mabel Ortiz Duran (Fco. Javier Zerquera 360), just a few blocks from the Plaza Mayor. A big attraction in this house was the private en suite bathroom. Twenty five CUC ($27 Cdn) will get you a night's stay.
Just down the street from Duran's was a great little paladar, or private restaurant. Paladars are another product of the slow economic reform in Cuba. These are run out of homes and generally offer better fare at cheaper prices than state-run restaurants.
I enjoyed a leisurely three-course lunch at the paladar of Odalys Garcia (Fco. Javier Zerquera 61). Starters included tomato salad, fried banana chips and split pea soup. The main course was a massive lobster tail on a bed of rice. For dessert, Garcia's homemade flan is delectable. With two glasses of wine, lunch cost 14 CUC ($15 Cdn).
The paladar is close to the main square, home to a sculpture of Terpsicore, the Greek muse of song and dance -- a fitting tribute in a city where dance is a part of life.
Despite its small size, Trinidad has a vibrant night scene. For those who want to salsa to live music, the Casa de la Musica is the perfect spot. The open air bar is on the cobblestone steps next to Holy Trinity Church. Locals here take their dancing seriously and it was easy to spot the tourist from the well-practised Cuban.
I didn't pick up any new dance moves, but did learn an important lesson -- stilettos, cobblestones and alcoholic beverages don't mix. I suggest more practical footwear if you plan on spending a night dancing in Trinidad.
If you crave thumping bass, Discoteca Ayala (Finca Santa Ana) is quite literally the hottest spot in Trinidad. The bar is carved out of an underground cave and lacks air conditioning. Cram a few hundred grooving bodies inside on a 30-degree night and the venue quickly turns into a sauna.
It's pricier than other bars in the city, with a cover charge and drinks running $2 CUC and more, but the atmosphere is well worth the prices. There's not too many places in the world where you can dance to Spanish club tunes reverberating off a cave's stalactites.
Seven days slip by quickly, and by the end I realized I hadn't spent enough time on the beach. But, the ribbing I got about my pale skin on my return was a small price to pay for ditching the beach and exploring beyond the walls of the all-inclusive resort.