Sunday, December 21, 2014

Nigeria's Homegrown Islamic Uprising Poses Regional Threat

People stand outside burnt houses following an attack by Islamic militants in Gambaru, Nigeria. Thousands of members of Nigeria’s home-grown Islamic extremist Boko Haram group strike across the border in Cameroon, with coordinated attacks on border towns, a troop convoy and a major barracks. Further north, Boko Haram employs recruits from Chad to enforce its control in northeastern Nigerian towns and cities. In Niger, the government has declared a “humanitarian crisis” and appealed for international aid to help tens of thousands of Nigerian refugees driven from their homes by the insurgency.


MAIDUGURI, NIGERIA (AP) — Thousands of members of Nigeria's home-grown Islamic extremist Boko Haram group strike across the border in Cameroon, with coordinated attacks on border towns, a troop convoy and a major barracks.
Farther north, Boko Haram employs recruits from Chad to enforce its control in northeastern Nigerian towns and cities. In Niger, the government has declared a "humanitarian crisis" and appealed for international aid to help tens of thousands of Nigerian refugees driven from their homes by the insurgency.
These recent events show how neighboring countries are increasingly being drawn into Nigeria's Islamic uprising. Thousands of people have been killed in Nigeria's 5-year insurgency and some 1.6 million people driven from their homes.
"We are concerned about the increasing regionalization of Boko Haram," said Comfort Ero, Africa director for the International Crisis Group. The countries have been slow to recognize "the gravity and extent of the threat from Boko Haram."
Ero cautioned that cooperation between the neighboring countries is weak. "None of the sides is willing to share information with the other," Ero said. "There's always been a lack of confidence in terms of shared regional security."
She said there is also distrust of the capabilities of Nigeria's once-proud military, which has been battered by Boko Haram. A court-martial this week sentenced 54 soldiers to death by firing squad for refusing to fight the extremists.
Chad responded this week by opening a regional "counter-terrorism cell" against Boko Haram in N'Djamena, Chad's capital 40 miles (60 kilometers) from the Nigerian border, according to an adviser to French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.
Boko Haram's threat to neighboring countries was highlighted on Wednesday, when some 5,000 insurgents launched simultaneous attacks on border towns in Cameroon, that country's Ministry of Defense said. During the fighting, the militants set off a roadside improvised explosive device that hit a military convoy. They also attacked the main border barracks at Amchide town, the defense statement said.
Cameroonian troops repelled the attacks and killed 116 militants, while losing a sergeant and a lieutenant, it said, adding that Boko Haram must have suffered additional casualties on the Nigerian side caused by Cameroonian artillery fire.
Fighters from Chad, Niger and Cameroon long have been identified among Boko Haram fighters in Nigeria. But residents fleeing Boko Haram now report that Chadian recruits are enforcing Boko Haram's rule in northeast Nigerian border towns in Borno state. People who escaped from Gajigana village, which was attacked a week ago, said fighters they called "Chadian mercenaries" have taken charge of most communities, even sitting in courts to adjudicate local disputes.
"They monitor every movement, all the things we do, the kind of people you meet with," said Kalli Abdullahi, who escaped to Maiduguri this week and spoke to The Associated Press. If residents break the strict Shariah law "they will get you and kill you so as to instill fear in people," he said.
Nigerian government officials confirm that Boko Haram controls 12 of 27 local government areas in Borno state, as well as some in Adamawa and Yobe states. And they long have had camps in Chad, Cameroon and Niger, say experts.
The area where the four countries' borders meet is generally poor and long has been ignored by governments. Desertification has intensified tensions. High unemployment means there are groups of disgruntled youths who are an easy target for Boko Haram recruitment. Across borders, people often belong to the same tribe and speak the same local languages. Boko Haram offers signing bonuses and monthly pay to those who join, say residents.
Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau long has expressed his international ambitions, saying his group is fighting to make "the entire world" an Islamic state. Analyst Ely Karmon wrote in a paper for the Terrorism Research Initiative that Boko Haram is "an immediate and infectious regional threat."
Associated Press writer Jamey Keaten contributed to this report from Paris. Faul reported from Cambridge, England.

A Chance To Breach Divide For Young In Cuba And US

Vanessa Garcia poses for a photo at her home in Miami, Florida, Friday, Dec. 19, 2014. “My family always said they weren’t going back until Fidel died,” said Garcia, a 35-year-old writer in Miami whose parents left Cuba in the 1960s. “But it seemed like that was something that was hurting us rather than helping us in many ways. It’s lasted much longer than anybody thought it would.”


HAVANA, CUBA (AP, DECEMBER 20, 2014) — Daniela Martinez long figured that someday she would leave the struggles of daily life in Cuba and join her uncle in the United States, but after the events of the last few days, the 18-year-old medical student thinks exile may not be her only choice.
"He always tells me things are better there," Martinez said, gesturing with her chin toward the sea leading to Florida. Dangling her legs over the edge of the Malecon, the iconic concrete seawall where entertainment-starved young Havanans gather each evening, she said, "I think things are going to get better."
For a generation that grew up believing the best way to pursue their dreams was to leave the island, the announcement this week that Cuba will open relations with the United States is prompting many to reevaluate their futures. At the same time, Cuban-Americans are considering what the changes will mean for their lives, with some even wondering whether they are significant enough to present a once far-fetched chance for them to return.
The five decades of estrangement since Fidel Castro came to power in the Cuban revolution have created an economic and psychological gulf much wider than the 90 miles of the Florida Straits. But the opening of relations, with increased travel and communication, stands to narrow those differences and create new opportunities, especially for young people less burdened by the past.
For Cubans like Martinez, it may mean that becoming a doctor won't limit her to a meager state salary. For others, there is the hope of Internet access and an end to the desperation that leads thousands to migrate each year. Cuban-Americans, meanwhile, see the possibility of starting businesses in their homeland, connecting with their roots and putting aside the bitterness of parents and grandparents who were arrested, exiled or had property seized in the revolution.
"My family always said they weren't going back until Fidel died," said Vanessa Garcia, a 35-year-old writer in Miami whose parents left Cuba in the 1960s. "But it seemed like that was something that was hurting us rather than helping us in many ways. It's lasted much longer than anybody thought it would."
Some change already has been in the works. Cuba did away with a longstanding restriction on overseas travel last year, and knowledge of modern culture has been making its way into the island via TV and flash drives brought from overseas — enough for people here to know what they are missing. Young people increasingly are on Facebook, even if they don't manage to get online often. And in the other direction, Cuban-Americans have been visiting in greater numbers, often helping to keep their extended families afloat.
Many in Florida grew up hearing their grandparents' stories about fleeing from communism. The revolution, they were taught, brought an end to freedom and ushered in tyranny. Cubans on the island, meanwhile, learned from state propaganda that the Yankees were the enemy and capitalism was savage. Anybody who left was called a "worm."
But Cubans and Cuban-Americans find that when they meet, they have much more in common than expected. They share the same hand gestures, slang and even taste in music. They love baseball with a passion. "Everybody says their grandmother's flan is the best and nobody knows how to make a Cuban sandwich except the place that they know," said Dave Sandoval, a musician in Washington.
Even after years of propaganda, Cubans are fascinated with some of the most hyper-American aspects of U.S. culture. Paula Pineiro, a 14-year-old high school student and musician, is dying to see the skyscrapers of New York while classmate Otto Rivero wants to see Disneyland and Las Vegas, places he knows only from TV.
"We want to have new experiences," says the 14-year-old Rivero. "I love casinos. They say they are magnificent." Yusset Perez, 30, arrived in Miami 10 months ago to join his wife and found work at a college as an administrative assistant and computer lab manager. But now he's thinking about opening a business back home.
"I always wanted to maintain ties, not turn my back from Cuba entirely," Perez said in Hialeah, the heavily Cuban Miami neighborhood where he passed out flyers for the college in front of a discount store specializing in clothing and housewares destined to be sent back to the island.
Nearly everyone in Cuba seems to have some familial connection to the United States, though people from the two countries can have cartoonish views of each other. Many Cubans are envious of the lifestyle and wealth of their relatives in the U.S., but can also consider them materialistic and arrogant. Many feel Americans don't respect their accomplishments, such as in schools and medical care.
Beatriz Garcia, a 25-year-old who teaches Spanish to foreign students, said that while she hopes to see Cuba have greater access to affordable consumer goods, she bristled at the notion the U.S. is better. "Over there, they may have a better economy," she said, "but here we have good education and health."
Cuban-Americans, on the other hand, sometimes see islanders as poor and unsophisticated, out of step with the modern world. "It definitely feels like a frozen 1950s version of everything my grandparents told me it looked like," said Garcia, the writer.
Miami architect Jovan Rodriguez said he's noticed improvements in Cuba, such as when he visited in February and found that a relative's home was for sale — something only made possible by recent property reforms. It's still not legal for foreign nonresidents to purchase real estate, but he's hopeful that may become possible.
"This completely changed my whole outlook toward the future as far as my relationship with Cuba," Rodriguez said. "I really made a profound connection with the people. I really hope to be able to go back soon, and I hope relations between our two nations make it easier for that to happen."
At the University of Havana, several students said they are aware of problems in their country but are optimistic about the future. Sitting on the same steps where Fidel Castro addressed jubilant crowds after rolling into Havana in January 1959, Ernesto Gutierrez Leyva, 20, said he would like to see Cuba move toward greater political tolerance, perhaps even a multiparty system, an idea that is still officially considered anathema. The country "is broken, but you have to fix it from here," he said.
And on the Malecon, Martinez noted there are advantages to staying in Cuba, such as a free university education. "I want to go to see it," she said of the United States, "but live in Cuba."
Associated Press writers Ben Fox and Peter Orsi contributed from Havana. Christine Armario reported from Miami.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

President Signs Legislation Ending Nazi Benefit Checks

President Barack Obama speaks in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington. President Barack Obama on Thursday capped a swift and forceful response to an Associated Press investigation by signing into law a measure that bars suspected Nazi war criminals from receiving U.S. Social Security benefits. AP’s investigation, which was the impetus for the No Social Security for Nazis Act, found that dozens of former Nazis collected millions of dollars in retirement benefits after being forced to leave the United States. Recipients ranged from the SS guards who patrolled the Third Reich’s network of camps where millions of Jews died to a rocket scientist who helped develop the V-2 rocket that Nazi Germany used to attack London.


WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama on Thursday capped a swift and forceful response to an Associated Press investigation by signing into law a measure that bars suspected Nazi war criminals from receiving U.S. Social Security benefits.
AP's investigation, which was the impetus for the No Social Security for Nazis Act, found that dozens of former Nazis collected millions of dollars in retirement benefits after being forced to leave the United States. Recipients ranged from the SS guards who patrolled the Third Reich's network of camps where millions of Jews died to a rocket scientist who helped develop the V-2 rocket that Nazi Germany used to attack London.
The speed with which the legislation moved underscored the outrage AP's findings triggered among lawmakers on Capitol Hill — and American taxpayers. The House unanimously approved the bill Dec. 2 and the Senate passed it by voice vote just two days later.
Mike King, a Vietnam veteran and a retired police officer in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, gets a Social Security check of $900 a month. That's less than half of what he could be getting based on his years in the workforce. But his benefits are reduced because of a rule that docks retirees who simultaneously collect a public pension. It's "appalling," he said, that former Nazis collected benefits when he and others in his position are forced to accept less.
"It is a slap in the face, not only to every American citizen but to every American veteran," King said. The bill signed into law by Obama terminates Social Security payments for individuals stripped of their American citizenships due to their participation in Nazi persecutions during World War II. U.S. law previously mandated a higher threshold — a final order of deportation — before a person's Social Security benefits could be terminated.
By lowering the threshold to loss of citizenship, a step known as denaturalization, the bill effectively shuts a loophole that for years had allowed suspected Nazis to continue receiving benefits even after being expelled from the U.S. for their roles in Third Reich's atrocities.
AP found that since 1979 at least 38 of 66 suspects removed from the United States kept their Social Security benefits. Many of these former Nazis got in to the U.S. after the war by lying about their pasts and eventually became U.S. citizens.
Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and an outspoken advocate for closing the loophole, said he felt vindicated. "I'm delighted and I think it's the right thing to do," he said in a telephone interview from his office in Los Angeles. "As I've said before, for those who say it's a form of collective punishment that also punishes their families, that's the problem of the Nazi who lied about his past and not our problem."
Among those whose benefits will be cut off because of the new law are Jakob Denzinger, a former Auschwitz guard, and Martin Hartmann, a former guard at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Germany. Their cases were described in AP's investigation, which was published in October.
Denzinger, who owned a successful plastics business in Akron, Ohio, fled the U.S. in 1989 as the Justice Department prepared to denaturalize him. AP located him in Croatia, where he was living comfortably and receiving a Social Security payment of about $1,500 each month. Hartmann, who was living in Berlin and also collecting Social Security, left the U.S. in 2007, just before a federal court issued an order to revoke his citizenship.
The Justice Department wanted the loophole retained because it gave the department leverage to convince Nazi suspects to leave the country, according to AP's investigation. If they signed a settlement agreement with the department, or simply fled the United States before being deported, their Social Security payments would keep coming. They'd lose their citizenships, but keep their benefits.
That meant the Justice Department could expel Nazis relatively quickly to countries where they would be prosecuted. Many of the suspects were aging and the department didn't want them to die in the United States before they stood trial.
Only 10 suspects were ever prosecuted after being expelled from the U.S., according to the Justice department's figures. The Justice Department denied using Social Security payments as a tool for expelling former Nazis.
Peter Carr, a Justice Department spokesman, said in an emailed statement last week that the department "supports the goal of terminating federal public benefits to individuals based upon a finding that they participated in Nazi-sponsored acts of persecution."
Nathan Moskowitz, the author of "Kuzmino Chronicles," the story of his parents' deportation to the Auschwitz death camp as teenagers, said cutting off the benefits "is a nice start," but more needs to be done. Former Nazis should be forced to return benefits they received, he said, and the Social Security Administration and Justice Department should declassify all documents describing any deals that were made with Nazi suspects.
"It would be nice if the Justice Department would issue an apology. It would be the morally correct thing to do," he said in a telephone interview from Maryland. __ Rising reported from Berlin and Herschaft from New York. Associated Press writer Stephen Ohlemacher in Washington contributed to this report.

Ebola: 11th Sierra Leone Doctor Dies; Fire Destroys Supplies

A healthcare worker dons protective gear before entering an Ebola treatment center in the west of Freetown, Sierra Leone. Dr. Brima Kargbo, Sierra Leone's chief medical officer, confirmed Thursday Dec. 18, 2014, that Dr. Victor Willoughby died earlier in the day after being tested positive for Ebola on Saturday, the 11th doctor in the country to die from the disease that is ravaging West Africa.



FREETOWN, SIERRA LEONE (ASSOCIATED PRESS) — One of Sierra Leone's most senior physicians died Thursday from Ebola, the 11th doctor in the country to succumb to the disease, a health official said.
In neighboring Guinea, a fire destroyed medicine crucial to fighting Ebola. The fire engulfed a warehouse at the Conakry airport and burned everything inside, said Dr. Moussa Konate, head of logistics for Guinea's Ebola response. He could not immediately say how much had been lost.
The world's largest Ebola outbreak has drawn a massive international response, and supplies, including everything from rubber gloves to ambulances, have poured into West Africa. The disease has sickened more than 18,600 people and more than 6,900 of them have died, the vast majority in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia.
Ebola has taken a particular toll on health workers, killing more than 350, depleting the ranks of doctors and nurses in countries that already had too few to begin with. Because Ebola is spread by bodily fluids, it is only transmitted through close contact. It is often called the "caregivers' disease" because those infected are typically family members caring for the sick or health workers treating them.
The death of Dr. Victor Willoughby, who tested positive for Ebola on Saturday, was a major loss for Sierra Leone, said Dr. Brima Kargbo, the country's chief medical officer. "Dr. Victor Willoughby was a mentor to us physicians and a big loss to the medical profession," said Kargbo. "He has always been available to help junior colleagues."
The 67-year-old died Thursday morning, just hours after an experimental drug arrived in the country for him. The arrival of ZMAb, developed in Canada, had raised hopes for Willoughby's survival. But he died before a dose could be administered, said Kargbo. ZMAb is related to ZMapp, another experimental drug that has been used to treat some Ebola patients. The drugs' efficacy in treating Ebola has not yet been proven.
Diallo reported from Conakry, Guinea.

2 Astronauts Will expand Envelop With I Year Spacecraft

NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko. Kelly and Kornienko will rocket into orbit from Kazakhstan in March, 2015. They will spend a year aboard the International Space Station. At a news conference Thursday, Dec. 18, 2014, at UNESCO headquarters in Paris, Kelly and Kornienko said they anticipate many scientific gains from their mission.


CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — The two men assigned to a one-year spaceflight said Thursday that their upcoming mission will allow the world to push deeper into space.
NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko will rocket into orbit from Kazakhstan in March and move into the International Space Station for an entire year. For NASA, it will represent a space endurance record; for Russia, it will fall two months shy of its world record.
At a news conference Thursday at UNESCO headquarters in Paris, Kelly and Kornienko said they anticipate many scientific gains from their mission. Researchers need to know more about the prolonged effects of space on humans, before astronauts embark on Mars expeditions lasting three years, round trip, they said.
"What makes this exciting for me, this one-year flight, is about the science and everything we're going to learn from expanding the envelope on the space station," Kelly said. "If we're ever going to go to Mars someday, the International Space Station is really a great platform to learn much more about having people live and work in space for longer durations. It's close to the Earth, and it's a great orbiting facility."
Kelly and Kornienko have been training for this mission since their selection two years ago. Both already have spent a half-year aboard the orbiting lab, on separate flights, and have been advised by previous yearlong space fliers to "pace yourself."
The 50-year-old Kelly, a former Navy fighter pilot, said his goals are the same as they are every time he flies in space: "No one gets hurt, we don't break anything and we leave as friends." Kelly noted that his first spaceflight, back in 1999, lasted eight days. At the time, it "seemed like that was a long time." His second flight, also on a space shuttle, lasted 13 days, and his space station visit in 2010 lasted 159 days.
"They're getting longer," he told reporters. "I think if I fly again," it just goes on forever "and I never come home." Kornienko, 54, a former Soviet paratrooper, said the support of his family has helped him deal with the preparations and the flight itself.
He had exciting personal news for those tuning in: "You can congratulate me. I am becoming grandpa."
Online:
NASA: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/main/index.html

Digital Dilemma: How Will US Respond To Sony Hack?

Randall Park, center, as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Columbia Pictures' "The Interview." North Korea has been linked to the unprecedented act of cyberwarfare against Sony Pictures that exposed tens of thousands of sensitive documents and escalated to threats of terrorist attacks that ultimately drove the studio to cancel all release plans for "The Interview."


WASHINGTON (AP) — The detective work blaming North Korea for the Sony hacker break-in appears so far to be largely circumstantial, The Associated Press has learned. The dramatic conclusion of a Korean role is based on subtle clues in the hacking tools left behind and the involvement of at least one computer in Bolivia previously traced to other attacks blamed on the North Koreans.
Experts cautioned that hackers notoriously employ disinformation to throw investigators off their tracks, using borrowed tools, tampering with logs and inserting false references to language or nationality.
The hackers are believed to have been conducting surveillance on the network at Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc. since at least the spring, based on computer forensic evidence and traffic analysis, a person with knowledge of the investigation told the AP.
If the hackers hadn't made their presence known by making demands and destroying files, they probably would still be inside because there was no indication their presence was about to be detected, the person said. This person, who described the evidence as circumstantial, spoke only on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk openly about the case.
Still, the evidence has been considered conclusive enough that a U.S. official told the AP that federal investigators have now connected the Sony hacking to North Korea. In public, White House spokesman Josh Earnest on Thursday declined to blame North Korea, saying he didn't want to get ahead of investigations by the Justice Department and the FBI. Earnest said evidence shows the hacking was carried out by a "sophisticated actor" with "malicious intent."
All this has led to a dilemma for the Obama administration: How and whether to respond? An earlier formal statement by the White House National Security Council also did not name North Korea but noted that "criminals and foreign countries regularly seek to gain access to government and private sector networks" and said "we are considering a range of options in weighing a potential response. " The U.S. official who cited North Korea spoke on condition of anonymity because that official was not authorized to openly discuss an ongoing criminal case.
U.S. options against North Korea are limited. The U.S. already has a trade embargo in place, and there is no appetite for military action. Even if investigators could identify and prosecute the individual hackers believed responsible, there's no guarantee that any who are overseas would ever see a U.S. courtroom. Hacking back at North Korean targets by U.S. government experts could encourage further attacks against American targets.
"We don't sell them anything, we don't buy anything from them and we don't have diplomatic relations," said William Reinsch, a former senior U.S. Commerce Department official who was responsible for enforcing international sanctions against North Korea and other countries. "There aren't a lot of public options left."
Sony abruptly canceled the Dec. 25 release of its comedy, "The Interview," which the hackers had demanded partly because it included a scene depicting the assassination of North Korea's leader. Sony cited the hackers' threats of violence at movie theaters that planned to show the movie, although the Homeland Security Department said there was no credible intelligence of active plots. The hackers had been releasing onto the Internet huge amounts of highly sensitive — and sometimes embarrassing — confidential files they stole from inside Sony's computer network.
North Korea has publicly denied it was involved, though it has described the hack as a "righteous deed." The episode is sure to cost Sony many millions of dollars, though the eventual damage is still anyone's guess. In addition to lost box-office revenue from the movie, the studio faces lawsuits by former employees angry over leaked Social Security numbers and other personal information. And there could be damage beyond the one company.
Sony's decision to pull the film has raised concerns that capitulating to criminals will encourage more hacking. "By effectively yielding to aggressive acts of cyberterrorism by North Korea, that decision sets a troubling precedent that will only empower and embolden bad actors to use cyber as an offensive weapon even more aggressively in the future," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who will soon become chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. He said the Obama administration has failed to control the use of cyber weapons by foreign governments.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said on MSNBC that the administration was "actively considering a range of options that we'll take in response to this attack." The hacking attack could prompt fresh calls for North Korea to be declared a state sponsor of terrorism, said Evans Revere, a former State Department official and Northeast Asia specialist. North Korea was put on that American list of rogue states in 1988 but taken off in 2008 as the U.S. was involved in multination negotiations with the North on its nuclear weapons program.
Evidence pinning specific crimes on specific hackers is nearly always imprecise, and the Sony case is no exception. Sony hired FireEye Inc.'s Mandiant forensics unit, which last year published a landmark report with evidence accusing a Chinese Army organization, Unit 61398, of hacking into more than 140 companies over the years. In the current investigation, security professionals examined blueprints for the hacking tools discovered in Sony's network, the Korean language setting and time zone, and then traced other computers around the world used to help coordinate the break-in, according to the person with knowledge about the investigation.
Those computers were located in Singapore and Thailand, but a third in Bolivia had previously been traced to other attacks blamed on North Korea, the person told the AP. The tools in the Sony case included components to break into the company's network and subsequently erase all fingerprints by rendering the hard drive useless.
"The Internet's a complicated place," said Adam Meyers, vice president of intelligence at CrowdStrike Inc., a security company that has investigated past attacks linked to North Korea. "We're talking about organizations that understand how to hide themselves, how to appear as if they're coming from other places. To that end, they know that people are going to come looking for them. They throw things in the way to limit what you can do attribution on."
Another agreed. "If you have a thousand bad pieces of circumstantial evidence, that doesn't mean your case is strong," said Jeffrey Carr, chief executive of Taia Global Inc., which provides threat intelligence to companies and government agencies.
An FBI "flash" bulletin sent to some companies with details of the hacking software described it as "destructive malware, a disk wiper with network beacon capabilities." The FBI bulletin included instructions for companies to listen for telltale network traffic that would suggest they had been infected.
Other movie studios aren't taken chances. Warner Bros. executives earlier this week ordered a company-wide password reset and sent a five-point security checklist to employees advising them to purge their computers of any unnecessary data, in an email seen by The Associated Press.
"Keep only what you need for business purposes," the message said.
Abdollah reported from Los Angeles. Associated Press writers Raphael Satter in London and Ted Bridis and Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this story.

Paul: Trade With Cuba 'Probably A Good Idea'

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. speaks in Jackson, Miss. Paul said Thursday that starting to trade with Cuba "is probably a good idea" and that the lengthy economic embargo against the communist island "just hasn't worked."


WASHINGTON (AP) — Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul said Thursday the lengthy U.S. economic embargo against Cuba "just hasn't worked" and voiced support for opening trade with Cuba in the aftermath of the Obama administration's policy shift regarding the communist island.
Paul became the first potential Republican presidential candidate to offer some support for President Barack Obama's decision to attempt to normalize U.S. relations with Cuba. The president's surprise announcement on Wednesday was criticized by several potential GOP candidates, who said it amounted to appeasing the Castro regime.
Paul said in a radio interview with Tom Roten of News Talk 800 WVHU in Huntington, West Virginia, that many younger Cuban Americans support open trade with Cuba. And many U.S. farmers, he said, would back Obama's moves because Cuba would offer a new market for their crops.
"The 50-year embargo just hasn't worked," Paul said. "If the goal is regime change, it sure doesn't seem to be working, and probably, it punishes the people more than the regime because the regime can blame the embargo for hardship.
"In the end, I think opening up Cuba is probably a good idea," he said. The senator's approach separates him from several potential Republican presidential hopefuls, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Govs. Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Paul's Senate colleagues Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas. His more libertarian outlook could win him support in agricultural states like Iowa, which holds the nation's first presidential caucuses.
Paul's comments also parallel those of Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton, who wrote in her book "Hard Choices" that the embargo was a failure that gave the Castro regime "a foil to blame for Cuba's economic woes." The former secretary of state is the leading Democratic candidate should she run for president.
Obama said Wednesday he would ease economic and travel restrictions on Cuba and attempt to partner with Congress to end the trade embargo. His announcement came after Cuba released American Alan Gross, who had been imprisoned for five years, and a Cuban who had spied for the U.S. In exchange, the U.S. freed three Cubans jailed in Florida.
Paul noted that he grew up in a family that opposed communism and at first thought opening up trade with China was a bad idea. But he said trading with China was the "best way to actually ultimately defeat communism."
His father, former Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, has supported lifting the Cuban embargo. "The bottom line is, even the Cuban community is kind of coming around on this," Sen. Paul said.
Follow Ken Thomas on Twitter: https://twitter.com/KThomasDC

Cubans Hope For Better Future With US-Havana Deal

Construction workers speculate what Cuba's President Raul Castro will announce in an upcoming live, nationally broadcast speech in Havana, Cuba, Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2014. Castro spoke about the country's restoration of relations with the United States, saying that profound differences remain between Cuba and the U.S. in areas such as human rights, foreign policy and questions of sovereignty, but that the countries have to learn to live with their differences "in a civilized manner."


HAVANA, CUBA (ASSOCIATED PRESS) — Cubans cheered the surprise announcement that their country will restore relations with the United States, hopeful they'll soon see expanded trade and new economic vibrancy even though the 53-year-old economic embargo remains in place for the time being.
"This opens a better future for us," said Milagros Diaz, 34. "We have really needed something like this because the situation has been bad and the people very discouraged." Bells tolled in celebration and teachers halted lessons midday as President Raul Castro told his country Wednesday that Cuba would renew relations with Washington after more than a half-century of hostility.
Wearing his military uniform with its five-star insignia, the 83-year-old leader said the two countries would work to resolve their differences "without renouncing a single one of our principles." Havana residents gathered around television sets in homes, schools and businesses to hear the historic national broadcast, which coincided with a statement by U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington. Uniformed schoolchildren burst into applause at the news.
At the University of San Geronimo in the capital's historic center, the announcement drew ringing from the bell tower. Throughout the capital, there was a sense of euphoria as word spread. "For the Cuban people, I think this is like a shot of oxygen, a wish-come-true, because with this, we have overcome our differences," said Carlos Gonzalez, a 32-year-old IT specialist. "It is an advance that will open the road to a better future for the two countries."
Fidel and Raul Castro led the 1959 rebellion that toppled the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. The U.S. initially recognized the new government but broke relations in 1961 after Cuba veered sharply to the left and nationalized U.S.-owned businesses.
As Cuba turned toward the Soviet Union, the U.S. imposed a trade embargo in 1962. Particularly since the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Cubans have confronted severe shortages of oil, food and consumer goods, forcing them to ration everything from beans to powdered milk.
The Cuban government blames most of its economic travails on the embargo, while Washington has traditionally blamed Cuba's Communist economic policies. In his address, Castro called on Washington to end its trade embargo which, he said, "has caused enormous human and economic damage."
Ramon Roman, 62, said he hoped to see Cuba welcome more tourists. "It would be a tremendous economic injection, both in terms of money and in new energy and would be a boost for average people who need it," he said.
Victoria Serrano, a lab worker, said she hoped to see an influx of new goods because life in Cuba has been "really very difficult." "In particular," she said, "I hope we'll see an improvement in food — that there is trade in this with the United States, which is so close. Right now, even an onion has become a luxury."
Around the cathedral in Old Havana, people gathered in doorways and on sidewalks, gesturing excitedly as they discussed the news. Guillermo Delgado, a 72-year-old retiree, welcomed the announcement as "a victory for Cuba because it was achieved without conceding basic principles."
Yoani Sanchez, a renowned Cuban blogger critical of the government, noted the development came with a price. Castro, she said, could now claim a triumph and that he had made a "bargaining chip" of Alan Gross, the U.S. aid worker who was released from prison Wednesday while the U.S. freed three Cubans held as spies.
"In this way, the Castro regime has managed to get its way," she wrote in a blog post. "It has managed to exchange a peaceful man, embarked on the humanitarian adventure of providing Internet connectivity to a group of Cubans, for intelligence agents that caused significant damage and sorrow with their actions."
Some dissidents expressed their displeasure at not being consulted by the U.S. government about the historic move. Dissident Guillermo Farinas considered the move a "betrayal" by Obama who, he said, had promised that they would be consulted. Another activist, Antonio Rodiles, said the measure "sends a bad message."
Others, meanwhile, were cautious, saying they'll wait and see what it all means. "It's not enough since it doesn't lift the blockade," said Pedro Duran, 28. "We'll see if it's true, if it's not like everything here: one step forward and three steps back. For now, I don't think there will be any immediate improvement after we've been living like this for 50 years."

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

US, Cuba Patch Torn Relations In Historic Accord

Antonio Guerrero, Fernando Gonzalez, Rene Gonzalez, Gerardo Hernandez and Ramon Labanino, who are known as the "Cuban Five." The men were intelligence agents operating in Florida in the 1990s, and were arrested in 1998 and later convicted on charges including conspiracy and failing to register as foreign agents. On Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2014, the United States and Cuba agreed to re-establish diplomatic relations and open economic and travel ties. As a confidence-building measure, Guerrero, Hernandez and Labanino are expected to be released from federal prison in Butner, N.C.


WASHINGTON (AP) — After a half-century of Cold War acrimony, the United States and Cuba moved on Wednesday to restore diplomatic relations — a historic shift that could revitalize the flow of money and people across the narrow waters that separate the two nations.
President Barack Obama's dramatic announcement in Washington — seconded by Cuban President Raul Castro in Havana — was accompanied by a quiet exchange of imprisoned spies and the celebratory release of American Alan Gross, a government contract worker who had been held in Cuba for five years.
The shift in U.S.-Cuba policy was the culmination of 18 months of secret talks between the longtime foes that included a series of meetings in Canada and the personal involvement of Pope Francis at the Vatican. It also marked an extraordinary undertaking by Obama without Congress' authorization as he charts the waning years of his presidency.
"These 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked," Obama declared at the White House. "It's time for a new approach." Obama spoke as Castro was addressing his nation in Havana, where church bells rang and school teachers paused lessons to mark the news. Castro said that while the U.S. and Cuba remain at odds on many matters, "we should learn the art of living together in a civilized manner in spite of our differences."
Obama's plans for remaking U.S. relations with Cuba are sweeping: He aims to expand economic ties, open an embassy in Havana, send high-ranking U.S. officials including Secretary of State John Kerry to visit and review Cuba's designation as a state sponsor of terrorism. The U.S. also is easing restrictions on travel to Cuba, including for family visits, official government business and educational activities. But tourist travel remains banned.
Obama and Castro spoke by telephone Tuesday for nearly an hour, the first presidential-level call between their nations' leaders since the 1959 Cuban revolution and the approval of a U.S. economic embargo on the communist island that sits just 90 miles off coast of Florida. The two men are also expected to meet at a regional summit in Panama next spring.
Obama did not rule out traveling to Cuba before his presidency ends, telling ABC News: "I don't have any current plans to visit Cuba, but let's see how things evolve." Despite Obama's declaration, the Cuba embargo was passed by Congress, and only lawmakers can revoke it. That appears unlikely to happen soon given the largely negative response to Obama's actions from Republicans who will take full control of Capitol Hill in January.
"Relations with the Castro regime should not be revisited, let alone normalized, until the Cuban people enjoy freedom — and not one second sooner," said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. "There is no 'new course' here, only another in a long line of mindless concessions to a dictatorship that brutalizes its people and schemes with our enemies."
The response from around the world was far more welcoming, particularly in Latin America, where the U.S. policy toward Cuba has been despised. Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro called Obama's action "a gesture that was courageous and historically necessary."
The Vatican said Pope Francis "welcomed the historic decision taken by the governments of the United States of America and Cuba to establish diplomatic relations, with the aim of overcoming, in the interest of the citizens of both countries, the difficulties which have marked their recent history."
Even Hillary Rodham Clinton, who advocated for Gross' release as Obama's former secretary of state, weighed in, arguing that U.S. policy in Cuba, while well-intentioned, had only strengthened Castro. "The best way to bring change to Cuba is to expose its people to the values, information and material comforts of the outside world," she said in a statement.
In Cuba, a sense of euphoria spread through Havana as people gathered around televisions to watch the Obama and Castro announcements. "For the Cuban people, I think this is like a shot of oxygen, a wish come true, because with this, we have overcome our differences," said Carlos Gonzalez, a 32-year-old information technology specialist.
Half a century ago, the U.S. recognized Fidel Castro's new government soon after his rebels took power from dictator Fulgencio Batista. But before long things began to sour as Cuba deepened its relationship with the Soviet Union. In 1961 the U.S. broke diplomatic relations, and then came the failed U.S.-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion meant to topple Castro. A year later a U.S. blockade forced removal of Soviet nuclear missiles from Cuba in a standoff that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.
Since then, the number of Americans who see Cuba as a serious threat has declined. A 1983 CNN/Time poll found 29 percent considered Cuba a very serious threat. That dipped to 13 percent in 1994 and 12 percent in 1997.
Under the changes announced Wednesday, licensed American travelers to Cuba will be able to return to the U.S. with $400 in Cuban goods, including tobacco and alcohol products worth less than $100 combined. This means the long-standing ban on importing Cuban cigars is over, although there are still limits.
Early in his presidency, Obama allowed unlimited family visits by Cuban-Americans. The financial impact on Cuba is unclear, though some American businesses welcomed the prospect of expanding into a new market. Tom Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said his organization stands "ready to assist as the Cuban people work to unleash the power of free enterprise to improve their lives."
Fidel Castro's specific whereabouts weren't known Wednesday, nor was it known when he might comment on the fast-shifting diplomacy. While Obama has long spoken of his desire to open ties with Cuba, the 2009 imprisonment of Gross, an American government subcontractor, became a major obstacle. Gross was detained while working to set up Internet access for the U.S. Agency for International Development, which does work promoting democracy in the communist country.
Cuba considers USAID's programs illegal attempts by the U.S. to undermine its government, and Gross was tried and sentenced to 15 years in prison. Last spring, Obama secretly authorized two of his senior advisers to hold exploratory conversations with Cuba about securing Gross' release. Over a series of nine clandestine meetings in Canada and the Vatican, the talks expanded to include broader discussions of normalizing relations.
Pope Francis raised the issue with Obama when the U.S. president visited the Vatican in March. And in early summer, the pontiff sent separate letters to Obama and Castro urging them to end their decades-long freeze.
The details of the prisoner releases and policy changes were largely finalized during a meeting at the Vatican last fall. Wednesday morning, Gross boarded a U.S. government plane and flew out of Cuba, accompanied by his wife and three U.S. lawmakers. Waiting for him on board were big bowls of popcorn and a corned beef sandwich on rye.
"This is game changing," Gross declared in brief, emotional remarks later in Washington. He flashed a broad grin with missing teeth — lost during his imprisonment — after taking an admiring glance at the American flags posted behind him and taking note that his release came on the first day of Hanukkah.
The two nations also released spies that they were holding. The Castro government released a Cuban spy who had spent nearly 20 years in prison after working for the United States and accessing closely held intelligence information at the highest levels of the Cuban government. U.S. officials said the spy was responsible for some of the most important counterintelligence prosecutions that the United States has pursed in recent decades, including convicted Cuban spies Ana Belen Montes, Walter Kendall Myers and Gwendolyn Myers and a group known as the Cuban Five.
In exchange for the spy's release, the U.S. freed the three remaining members of the Cuban Five who were jailed in Florida. The men, who are hailed as heroes in Cuba, were part of the "Wasp Network" sent by Cuba's then-President Fidel Castro to spy in South Florida.
Two of the five were previously released after finishing their sentences.
Associated Press writers Jessica Gresko, Jack Gillum, Bradley Klapper and Ken Dilanian in Washington, Andrea Rodriguez and Anne-Marie Garcia in Havana and Rob Gillies in Toronto contributed to this report.
Follow AP White House Correspondent Julie Pace at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC and AP Diplomatic Writer Matthew Lee at http://twitter.com/APDiploWriter

Freed American Endured Years Of Declining Health

Alan Gross smiles as he walks in with his wife Judy before speaking to members of the media at his lawyer’s office in Washington, Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2014. Gross was released from Cuba after 5 years in a Cuban prison.


WASHINGTON (AP) — Alan Gross spent five years wasting away in a Cuban prison, losing hope that he would ever be free and at one point apparently contemplating suicide. He dropped more than 100 pounds, developed hip problems and lost most of the vision in one eye.
On Wednesday, the 65-year-old American returned to Washington a free man. "It's good to be home," he said in brief remarks at his lawyer's Washington office, where he stood in front of two U.S. flags and grinned, despite having lost teeth in prison.
The former federal subcontractor arrested in 2009 was freed as part of a historic announcement that the U.S. would re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba. His detention had been a sticking point in improving relations between the countries, and Gross spoke supportively of President Barack Obama's move. He said history had shown that the nation's previous approach to its old foe was ineffective.
"Two wrongs never make a right," Gross said. "I truly hope that we can now get beyond these mutually belligerent policies." Gross' wife, Judy, has called him a humanitarian and an idealist, someone who was "probably naïve" and did not realize the risks of going to Cuba to work for the federal government's U.S. Agency for International Development.
His wife and officials said he went to Cuba to set up Internet access for the communist island's small Jewish community. But a 2012 investigation by The Associated Press found he was using sensitive technology typically available only to governments, and the Internet connections Gross was establishing were intended to bypass local restrictions and be hard for the government to trace. The visit he was arrested on was his fifth trip for that purpose.
Cuba considers USAID's programs like the one Gross was working on illegal attempts by the U.S. to undermine its government. Gross was tried and sentenced to 15 years in prison. In court in Cuba, the Maryland native called himself a "trusting fool" who never meant any harm to the Cuban government. But reports he wrote about his work showed he knew it was dangerous.
"This is very risky business in no uncertain terms," he wrote in one report after his third trip, and he repeated the same sentiment in a report after his fourth. During the five years he was imprisoned, family members said, Gross never grew angry at the Cuban people, and on Wednesday he described the vast majority of Cubans as "incredibly kind, generous and talented."
In prison, he got along well with his jailors, his family has said. He watched Cuban baseball and even jammed with his jailors on a stringed instrument they gave him. One of his talents is being able to pick up and play almost any instrument.
He kept in touch with relatives through weekly phone calls and passed the time reading books and magazines sent by his wife. The Economist, The Atlantic and Washingtonian were favorites. On Friday nights, Gross, who is Jewish, would take out a picture of a group of friends celebrating the sabbath and recite the prayers they would say together.
But prison was tough on Gross. His health was constantly an issue. In April, after an AP story revealed that USAID secretly created a "Cuban Twitter" communications network to stir unrest on the island shortly after Gross was arrested, he went on a hunger strike for more than a week.
His mother, who was in her 90s, persuaded him to start eating again. She died earlier this year and despite pleas from his family, Gross was not allowed to return to the United States for her funeral. After her death, Gross became withdrawn and seemed to contemplate ending his life.
"Life in prison is not a life worth living," he told his lawyer, Scott Gilbert, and vowed that "one way or the other" he wouldn't spend another birthday in prison. Earlier, he had been more hopeful, dreaming of what he would do when he got out.
His older sister, Bonnie Rubinstein, said in 2012 that he wanted to watch a Cuban baseball game as a free man. He also wanted to eat ribs and drink scotch. His brother-in-law, Rubinstein's husband, even purchased a 12-year-old single-malt scotch he planned to save until his brother-in-law got home.
But when Gross' lawyer told him Tuesday by phone that he would soon be free, he responded with stunned silence, a family spokeswoman said. "I'll believe it when I see it," he finally said. A military plane arrived to take him home Wednesday, and Gross and his wife walked to it hand-in-hand.
Onboard was a bowl of popcorn, another thing he had missed, and a corned beef sandwich on rye. There were also latkes with applesauce and sour cream in honor of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, which began Tuesday.
When the pilot announced they were leaving Cuban airspace, Gross stood up and took a deep breath. He spoke with the president by telephone while in the air. And he called his sister and two daughters.
"I'm free," he told them.
Follow Jessica Gresko at http://twitter.com/jessicagresko