Sunday, November 20, 2011

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Cuba targets corruption amid economic reform
Cuba says sugar industry slashing bureaucracy, costs in restructuring of once-dominant crop
In Cuba, king sugar slims down in industry re-org
Children Of Cuba Remember Their Flight To America
Cuba Goes After Corruption
Corruption crackdown helps usher change in Cuba
Feds investigating proper approvals for BWI flights to Cuba  
Cuba to give flu shots to over 600,000 people 
Gathering the clan in Cuba 
Mauricio Claver-Carone: Prevention of Cuba's Drilling Best Serves U.S. Interests 
Cuba plans deep-water oil drilling 
Cuba Rejects U.S. Double-Standard Policy 
VIDEO: End of road for Cuba's classic cars? 
Grain News
Yoani Sanchez: Cuba's Great Filmmaker, Eduardo Del Llano, Censored at Annual Film Festival in Havana
Cuban dissident slams censorship, travel restrictions


Amid economic reforms, Cuba goes after corruption

HAVANA (AP) — Green-clad security agents swoop down on an upscale business complex to shutter the offices of a Canadian car dealership. Top executives at Cuba's famed cigar monopoly find themselves behind bars. A former government minister trades his seat in power for a jail cell and a 15-year term.
President Raul Castro is matching his free market economic changes with a zealous battle against entrenched corruption on this Communist-run island, much of it involving Cuban officials at major state-run companies and ministries as well as the foreigners they do business with.
Cuba says the crusade is essential to save the socialist system. Others wonder at the timing of a crackdown that has sent a chill through the small foreign business community, just when the cash-strapped economy needs international financing to push the reforms along.
Cuba has battled corruption before, even executing a former revolutionary war hero on drug trafficking charges in 1989. But past arrests have been largely limited to Cubans. Analysts say the current crackdown seems different, with Canadian, French, Czech, Chilean and English citizens jailed or sentenced for their alleged roles, and scores of small South American and European companies kicked out of the country.
The sale of Korean cars and car parts slowed this year as two top distributors, both Canadian, became ensnared. Meanwhile products like Chilean wine, juice and tomato paste temporarily disappeared from supermarket shelves, replaced after a few months by other brands.
One thing is clear. The rules of doing business in Cuba have changed dramatically under Raul.
"This is not a campaign, what is happening in the fight against corruption," Attorney General Dario Delgado told journalists this month. "This is permanent. This is systemic. There is a will on the part of the state ... that corruption cannot be permitted."
While the nonprofit Transparency International says Cuba ranks better than average worldwide in a measure of corruption and is third best in Latin America and the Caribbean, graft here can be more corrosive because the state controls nearly the entire economy.
Companies wanting to do business with Cuba must present their cases directly to midlevel government officials who may make about $20 a month. There is no open bidding for contracts and decisions go unexplained, which businessmen say opens the possibility of graft.
A South American importer with a decade of experience selling food products to Cuba before he was expelled for alleged corruption in 2009 said the payoffs can take many forms: from the gift of a bit of gas money, a free meal or a computer pen drive for a relatively junior "international purchaser," to free trips abroad, computers, flat-screen TVs or large deposits of cash in foreign bank accounts for senior officials.
"The forms of persuasion — let's call it that — are nearly infinite," he said, adding that the system is so pervasive that "a businessman must always have a wad of cash to stuff the pocket of a guayabera," the loose-fitting traditional Cuban dress shirt.
Cuban officials have not said what impact the crackdown will have on the island's economy, but they have warned repeatedly that widespread graft has the potential to destroy it.
"The fight against corruption is vitally important," said Comptroller General Gladys Bejerano, a stern, poker-faced official who is spearheading the investigations. "It doesn't produce fatalities and there are no bombs or blood ... but it is the only thing that can bring down the revolution because it destroys our values and morality and it corrodes our institutions."
Castro has thrown his full weight behind the project since taking over from his ailing brother in 2006. In 2007, he signed a law imposing stricter rules on public officials. When he put Bejerano in charge of the Comptroller General's Office in 2009, he altered the chain of command so that she would report directly to him and the Council of State, Cuba's supreme governing body.
Even the Cuban leader has joked that Bejerano was not the most popular at government parties.
"Comrade Gladys Bejerano was not well liked by some, and there was always someone complaining" that her investigations are "demoralizing," Castro told legislators in a December 2010 speech. "They said 'Gladys is very unforgiving, she can be very stern.' That is what we want. That is what I constantly demand."
The arrests and raids also have sent a shudder through Havana's small foreign business community, a collection of risk-takers who always have accepted a high degree of uncertainty doing business with a Marxist country that is subject to a 49-year U.S. trade embargo, and which has a mixed track record of payment. Some now see themselves as targets.
Moves against them began in earnest in 2009 when more than 150 foreign business owners and operators were expelled, according to businessmen and a confidential Foreign Trade Ministry list obtained by The Associated Press. But the pace of closures and number of arrests have grown in recent months.
"It's like an earthquake," said a foreign business adviser who counsels companies looking to enter the Cuban market. He said the crackdown is coming just when Cuba is becoming more attractive because of Castro's free-market opening, with rising demand for building supplies, car parts and other products used by entrepreneurs and the state-run tourism sector. Despite the arrests, he said, many new potential business partners continue to visit Cuba in hopes of entering the market.
"It is a time of opportunity, but also great risk because of what is happening: the arrests, the closures," he said, insisting on anonymity out of fear that speaking publicly would damage his standing with the government. "Everybody is nervous. Everybody is looking over their shoulder to see who will be next, who is the next victim."
Authorities have acknowledged at least six sweeping corruption investigations involving foreigners in the past two years, with at least 52 people sentenced to prison. And for every confirmed probe, rumors of others abound. Cuba's state-controlled media seldom report on the investigations, particularly those involving foreigners. Cubans are used to the lack of transparency, which has turned Havana into a swirl of whispers and intrigue.
Delgado defended the practice of giving few details on the investigations.
"There exists all the transparency in the world," he said. "But in Cuba as in other countries, investigations have rules and details are given when the moment is right."
Those whose arrests have been acknowledged include Alejandro Roca, a former food industries minister who was sentenced in May to 15 years in a case involving Rio Zaza, a Cuban-Chilean company run by Max Marambio, a close friend of Fidel Castro who for years enjoyed access to the inner circle of power.
The government has never revealed details of what Roca did, other than to say he was sentenced for "continuous bribe-taking." Marambio, who spent most of his time in Chile, was sentenced in absentia to 20 years. A lawyer for Marambio declined to comment.
A separate case involving Marambio's brother, Marcel, ensnared 14 executives at Cuba's civil aviation authority and led to the firing of its president, Rogelio Acevedo, a comrade-in-arms of the Castros since their rebel days.
A dozen executives at cigar maker Habanos SA also have been jailed since 2010, including company vice president Manuel Garcia, according to three sources close to the company, a joint venture between the Cuban government and a subsidiary of England's Imperial Tobacco Group PLC. The sources refused to be identified for fear of angering authorities.
In recent months there have been widespread reports of arrests at national phone company Etecsa, which is run by the military, and of two senior Telecommunications Ministry officials. A Western diplomat confirmed the ministry arrests and two people close to Etecsa said several senior executives were detained. The sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the case is linked to alleged corruption involving a multimillion-dollar project involving Paris-based Alcatel-Lucent and Cuban and Venezuelan state telecoms to lay an undersea fiber-optic cable linking Cuba to Venezuela.
Officials boasted for months about the cable, which was expected to increase Internet speed 3,000-fold. But the government fell silent as its July launch date came and went, and there has been no appreciable change in Internet speed. Etecsa and the government declined requests for comment.
The government has given no information on probes of Tri-Star Caribbean and Tokmakjian Group, the two car dealerships run by Canadians, as well as investment firm Coral Capital Group, led by a Briton. The foreign business adviser and another businessman who spoke on condition of anonymity said all three cases sprang from a probe into graft at the Moa nickel mine, where several Cuban officials and a Czech reportedly have been detained. The project is a joint venture between Cuba and the Canadian mining company Sherritt.
Tri-Star was shuttered in July and its president, Sarkis Yacoubian, detained. Tokmakjian was raided in September, and president Cy Tokmakjian placed under house arrest.
Tri-Star is listed on an Internet business registry as having an address in Nova Scotia where a similarly named company, Tri-Star Industries, is located. But the owner of the latter, Keith Condon, told AP there was no corporate relationship between the two companies, though he did some business with Yacoubian more than a decade ago. He said his company had taken legal action.
Yacoubian's brother Greg in Toronto declined to comment. Several messages were left for representatives of the Tokmakjian Group in Ontario.
A spokesman for the Canadian government, Jean-Francois Lacelle, said Ottawa was "aware of the detention of two Canadian citizens" but would not give details, citing privacy concerns.
Several foreign businessman applaud the crackdown, saying it is important to level the playing field for honest companies, but even they refused to speak on the record.
Their sentiment was echoed by Omar Everleny Perez, lead economist at Havana University's Center for Cuban Economic Studies, who has argued that the government must encourage foreign investment to keep the reforms from foundering. Still, he said eradicating graft is vital even if it discourages some investment.
"If you are going to undertake a profound change in the Cuban economy," he said. "You must take this problem on with great force."
Associated Press writers Andrea Rodriguez and Peter Orsi contributed to this report.
Paul Haven can be reached at

Blasts in Syrian capital as Assad vows crackdown

BEIRUT (AP) — Residents in the Syrian capital awoke to two loud explosions Sunday amid reports from activists that the Damascus headquarters of the ruling Baath party had been hit by several rocket-propelled grenades.
There was no immediate confirmation of the report but the Free Syrian Army, a group of military defectors, claimed responsibility for the attack.
In a statement posted on the group's Facebook page, the FSA said the assault caused casualties and damage to the building. But eyewitnesses said the party headquarters appeared intact and reported no significant security deployment around it.
If true, the Damascus attack on the Baath Party's main building would signal a significant shift in the eight-month revolution against President Bashar Assad, bringing the violence that has engulfed much of the rest of the country to the heart of the Syrian capital, which has so far been relatively untouched.
In Cairo, the Arab League said it has rejected amendments proposed by Syria to a peace plan to end the crisis, saying the changes put forward by Damascus alter the plan's "essence."
The 22-member organization did not give details of Syria's proposed amendments. But it said in a statement Sunday that Damascus' proposals were unacceptable because they introduce "drastic changes" to the mandate of an observers' mission the league wants to dispatch to Syria to ensure the implementation of the peace plan.
The Arab League has already suspended Syria's membership over its failure to abide by the plan, which calls for the withdrawal of the government's tanks from the streets, the release of political prisoners and a halt to attacks on civilians.
An Arab League official speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media said the Syrian government was required to implement the peace plan in its entirety.
Assad, meanwhile, vowed to continue with a security crackdown to crush "militants" who he says are massacring Syrians on a daily basis.
"The role of the government is to fight those militants in order to restore stability and to protect civilians," he said in an interview with Britain's Sunday Times newspaper. He also repeated earlier warnings that any foreign military intervention in Syria would "shake the entire Middle East."
On Sunday, activist groups said at least three people were killed in continuing operations by security forces, including two in the flashpoint central city of Homs and one in northern Syria.
Syria's uprising against Assad, although largely peaceful, has grown more violent and militarized in recent weeks, as frustrated protesters see the limits of peaceful action. Army dissidents who sided with the protests have also grown bolder, fighting back against regime forces and even attacking military bases, raising fears of a civil war in Syria.
The Free Syrian Army group of dissident soldiers this week staged their boldest operation yet, striking a military intelligence building in a Damascus suburb.
If Sunday's attack on the Baath Party headquarters in Damascus is confirmed, it would mark the first assault on a government building in what has so far been a relatively quiet central Damascus.
The Local Coordination Committees activist network and several residents reported several explosions in the district of Mazraa in the heart of the Syrian capital.
The LCC said in a statement that the building had been hit at daybreak Sunday by several rocket-propelled grenades and that two fire brigades headed toward the area amid a heavy security presence. The group said it had no further details.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said unknown gunmen on motorcycles threw first a sound bomb and then fired RPGs at the Baath party headquarters, hitting the external wall of the building. Two other grenades missed the target, it said.
Residents in the Syrian capital said they heard two loud explosions but could not confirm whether the building had been hit.
"I woke up to the sound of two loud thuds," said a resident of the area who asked that he remain anonymous for fear of reprisals. "We have no idea what they were."
The U.N. says more than 3,500 people in Syria have been killed in the crackdown since the start of the uprising in mid-March. Assad, in the interview, said more than 800 Syrian officers and security forces were killed.
"We are not talking about peaceful demonstrations, we are talking about militants," he said.
Syrian TV said the country's foreign minister will announce Damascus' position on the Arab initiative later Sunday.
Assad, however, lashed out at the Arab League and said the peace plan was aimed at giving the international community an excuse to meddle in his country.
"It's been done to show that there's a problem between the Arabs, thus providing Western countries with a pretext to conduct a military intervention against Syria," he said.
The consequence of any such intervention, he warned, would be "an earthquake that would shake the entire Middle East."
In the interview, Assad said he feels "pain and sorrow" for the bloodshed but added the solution was to eliminate the militants he blames for much of the violence. The Assad regime maintains the militants are playing out a foreign agenda to isolate and weaken Syria.
"The conflict will continue and the pressure to subjugate Syria will also continue," he said. "However I assure you that Syria will not bow down and that it will continue to resist the pressure being imposed on it."
Assad, who took over power from his late father, Hafez, in 2000, said there would be parliamentary elections in February or March, after which there would be a new government and new constitution.
"That constitution will set the basis of how to elect a president ... the ballot box should decide who should be president."

Libya says Gadhafi son to be tried at home

ZINTAN, Libya (AP) — The Libyan information minister says Moammar Gadhafi's son and one-time heir apparent will be tried at home and will not be handed over to the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
Mahmoud Shammam says Libya's National Transitional Council will discuss its decision with the ICC's chief prosecutor when he visits Libya on Monday. Seif al-Islam Gadhafi is wanted by the ICC on charges of crimes against humanity.
But Shammam told The Associated Press on Sunday that it would only be fair for Libyans to try Seif al-Islam at home where he "committed crimes against Libyan people."
Seif al-Islam was captured in the desert of southern Libya on Saturday.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.
ZINTAN, Libya (AP) — The revolutionary fighters who captured Moammar Gadhafi's son and one-time heir apparent said Sunday they want to hold him in their town until a court system is established in Libya, and they demanded he be tried inside the country.
Seif al-Islam Gadhafi was seized in Libya's southern desert by fighters from the western mountain town of Zintan, the base of former rebels who played a key role in seizing the capital Tripoli in August and toppling Gadhafi's regime. He was put into a plane and flown back to Zintan, 85 miles (150 kilometers) southwest of Tripoli, where he remains in a secret location.
The head of Zintan's military council, Col. Mohammed al-Khabash, said his fighters have no intention of turning Seif al-Islam over to the National Transitional Council in Tripoli, the interim government that took power after Gadhafi's ouster.
"Seif al-Islam is like any other local prisoner and we will keep him in Zintan until a court system is established and he must be tried in Libya," al-Khabash told the Associated Press.
Gadhafi's son, once being groomed to take over from his father who ruled Libya for 42 years, is wanted by the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands on charges of crimes against humanity for his role in violently suppressing the uprising against the regime that began in February.
NTC Justice Minister Mohammed al-Alagi claimed Saturday after Seif al-Islam was captured that he would be transported to Tripoli soon — an indication that he was expected to be handed over to NTC custody.
ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo told the AP Saturday that he will travel to Libya next week for talks with the NTC on where the trial will take place. Ocampo said that while national governments have the first right to try their own citizens for war crimes, his primary goal was to ensure Seif al-Islam has a fair trial.
The statement by the Zintan fighters raises new questions about how firm the NTC's authority is over the entire country and whether powerful regional factions with bands of armed fighters are able to act autonomously, even on issues of the highest national interest.
Gadhafi himself and another one of his sons, Muatassim, were captured alive last month by another strong regional group, the Misrata fighters, who also took part in the march on Tripoli that toppled the regime. By the end of the day they were seized on, they both ended up dead while still in the hands of Misrata fighters in circumstances that have yet to be explained. The Misrata fighters held onto their corpses and displayed them as trophies for days in a commercial refrigerator in their city, where people lined up to view the decomposing bodies.
Human Rights Watch has called for Seif al-Islam to be promptly turned over to the International Criminal Court in a statement, citing the apparent killings in custody of his father and brother, Muatassim, on Oct. 20 as "particular cause for concern."
Seif al-Islam's capture leaves only former intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senoussi wanted by the ICC, which indicted the two men along with Gadhafi in June for unleashing a campaign of murder and torture to suppress the uprising against the Gadhafi regime that broke out in mid-February. Protests inspired by the so-called Arab Spring sweeping the region soon escalated into a civil war, with NATO launching airstrikes under a U.N.-mandate to protect civilians.
Photos and video clips showed Seif al-Islam wearing glasses and a beard, clothed in brown robes and a turban in the style of ethnic Tuaregs, a nomadic community that spans the desert border area of Niger, Mali, Libya, Algeria and Chad and long fought for his father's regime. In some, he was bundled onto an airplane that apparently carried him to Zintan.
It was a dramatic turnabout for Seif al-Islam, who is the oldest of seven children of Moammar and Safiya Gadhafi. He had one older half brother, Mohammed.
He went underground after Tripoli fell to revolutionary forces in late August and was widely reported to have long been hiding in the besieged town of Bani Walid, issuing audio recordings to try to rally support for his father, but he escaped before it fell to revolutionary forces.
Al-Shalchi reported from Cairo.