Tuesday, December 23, 2014

WNU #1247: Panamanians Remember US Invasion

Issue #1247, December 21, 2014

1. Panama: Victims Remember US Invasion
2. Cuba: US Agrees to Normalize Relations
3. Cuba: Leftists, US Firms Praise New Policy
4. Cuba: USAID Head Quits After Latest Scandal
5. Venezuela: US Imposes Sanctions on Officials
6. Links to alternative sources on: Latin America, Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Panama, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, Cuba, US/immigration

ISSN#: 1084 922X. Weekly News Update on the Americas covers news from Latin America and the Caribbean, compiled and written from a progressive perspective. It has been published weekly by the Nicaragua Solidarity Network of Greater New York since 1990. It is archived at http://weeklynewsupdate.blogspot.com. For a subscription, write to weeklynewsupdate@gmail.com. Follow us on Twitter at http://twitter.com/WeeklyNewsUpdat.

*1. Panama: Victims Remember US Invasion
Victims and survivors of the 1989 invasion of Panama by the US held a public ceremony on Dec. 20 to mark the 25th anniversary of the start of the military action. As they have for 25 years, the ceremony’s participants called for the US government to acknowledge the damage from the invasion, indemnify the victims and their survivors, and reveal the location of mass graves where some of the dead were buried. “There were bodies that were thrown in the sea, and there are bodies scattered in different places, so we can never finally offer them a tribute,” Trinidad Ayola, whose husband died defending an airport, told the AFP wire service. “Without justice there can’t be peace or reconciliation, and we can’t turn the page.” President Juan Carlos Varela attended the ceremony, announcing that the government would form a commission to consider the families’ demands, including the declaration of Dec. 20 as a national day of mourning. He is the first Panamanian president to attend the annual commemoration.

Codenamed “Operation Just Cause,” the invasion was ordered by then-president George H.W. Bush (1989-1993) and overseen by armed forces head Gen. Colin Powell. The stated goal was to capture Panamanian military leader Manuel Antonio Noriega, a longtime asset of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), in order to restore democracy and end cocaine trafficking through Panama. Others have suggested that Bush invaded because Noriega refused to help the US attack the government of Nicaragua, then headed by the leftist Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), and because he wouldn’t renegotiate the Torrijos-Carter treaty, in which the US agreed to return control of the Panama Canal to Panama in 1999. After serving out a prison sentence in the US, Noriega was extradited to Panama in 2011 and remains in prison there.

According to official sources, 314 Panamanian soldiers and 23 US soldiers died in the invasion. The Panamanian government says some 200 civilians were killed, but Panamanian human rights organizations estimate that more than a thousand died. US bombing caused widespread damage in the country, setting off fires in Panama City’s impoverished El Chorrillo neighborhood that destroyed some 4,000 homes.

Panamanians may not have been the only victims of the invasion. Writing in TomDispatch on Dec. 21, New York University history professor Greg Grandin concluded that the success of “Just Cause”--both in achieving its military goals and in influencing US public opinion--encouraged US leaders to larger and even bloodier military interventions. “[T]he invasion of Panama was the forgotten warm-up for the first Gulf War, which took place a little over a year later,” according to Grandin. “The road to Baghdad, in other words, ran through Panama City. It was George H.W. Bush’s invasion of that small, poor country 25 years ago that inaugurated the age of preemptive unilateralism, using ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’ as both justifications for war and a branding opportunity.” (El Siglo (Panama) 12/18/14 from AFP; Fox News Latino 12/21/14; TomDispatch 12/21/14)

*2. Cuba: US Agrees to Normalize Relations
In a surprise move, Cuban president Raúl Castro and US president Barack Obama announced in separate television appearances on Dec. 17 that their two countries were now working to renew diplomatic relations, which the US broke off nearly 54 years earlier, in January 1961, under former president Dwight Eisenhower (1953-1961). The two countries were releasing a total of 58 prisoners in the agreement, officials said, and the US will loosen some restrictions on contacts with Cuba by US residents; however, the US government’s 52-year-old embargo against trade with Cuba will remain in effect.

The accord was worked out in 18 months of secret discussions and meetings, apparently with some mediation from Argentine-born Catholic pope Francis (Jorge Mario Bergoglio). President Castro said the agreement “in no way means that the heart of the matter has been resolved,” but he added that “the progress made in our exchanges proves that it is possible to find solutions to many problems.” President Obama described the previous US policy towards Cuba as “an outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interests” and said the accord will “begin a new chapter among the nations of the Americas.”

As part of the agreement Cuba released US citizen Alan Gross, who had been serving a 15-year prison sentence in Cuba since 2011 for his work there as a contractor for the US Agency for International Development (USAID) [see Update #1241]. At the same time the US released Antonio Guerrero, Gerardo Hernández and Ramón Labañino, three of the “Cuban Five,” a group of Cuban agents that US courts convicted in 2001 of espionage-related activities; the other two agents, René González and Fernando González, were released earlier after serving their sentences [see Update #1211]. Cuban officials said Gross, who was unwell, was freed for humanitarian reasons. Apparently the three Cubans were not exchanged for Gross but for a US spy who had been imprisoned in Cuba for nearly 20 years. The Cuban government also agreed to release 53 Cubans that the US had described as “political prisoners.” (New York Times 12/18/14)

Cuban and US officials refused to name the US spy who was released, but unidentified former US intelligence agents told the media they were certain the spy was Rolando Sarraff Trujillo, a Cuban cryptologist who was arrested in 1995 and was serving a 25-year sentence for revealing Cuban secret codes to the US. Reportedly his actions helped lead US intelligence to the exposure of a number of important Cuban agents in the US: the Cuban Five, Ana Belén Montes [see Update #664], Walter Kendall Myers and Gwendolyn Myers. Although officials said the spy was freed and sent to the US as part of the deal, as of Dec. 19 Sarraff Trujillo’s relatives said they hadn’t heard from him and were concerned for his safety. (Los Angeles Times 12/18/14; NYT 12/19/14 from AP)

The US government is to ease restrictions on different categories of travel to Cuba by US residents--for family visits, official visits, and journalistic, professional, educational and religious activities, and public performance--and travelers will also be able to bring back $400 worth of goods, including up to $100 in tobacco and alcohol products. However, private tourism will still be forbidden. Banking connections will be increased, and US residents will be able to send family members in Cuba $2,000 every three months, up from $500 at present. The US State Department has been instructed to “re-evaluate” its 22-year-old listing of Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism,” a designation which has been questioned even by establishment groups like the Council on Foreign Relations think tank. The US president lacks the authority to end the trade embargo, which Congress has mandated through various laws, but on Dec. 17 Obama asked for an “honest and serious debate about lifting” it. (Boston Globe 12/17/14; NYT 12/18/14; US Today 12/19/14)

*3. Cuba: Leftists, US Firms Praise New Policy
US president Barack Obama’s Dec. 17 announcement that the US would restore diplomatic relations with Cuba was “an historic triumph for the society and the government of the island,” the left-leaning Mexican daily La Jornada asserted in an editorial the next day. “[T]he hostility converted into Washington’s government policy has arrived at its end—although the repeal of the blockade laws is still pending—and this occurred without Havana’s having made any concession in its political and economic model.” The paper added that the policy change demonstrated “the correctness of the position of the Latin American governments, which advocated for decades for an end to the official US hostility to Cuba.” (LJ 12/18/14)

The change won praise from Latin American leaders on both the left and the right. “For us, social fighters, today is an historic day,” center-left Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff said at conference of South American countries in Argentina. “We imagined we would never see this moment.” Venezuela’s leftist president Nicolás Maduro, attending the same conference, called the move an “historic victory for the Cuban people…. [W]e have to recognize the gesture from President Barack Obama, a courageous and necessary gesture.” Center-right Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos expressed his hope that the new policy would lead to attaining “the dream of having a continent where there is total peace.” (Washington Post 12/18/14 from correspondents)

The response in the US was generally favorable, despite heavy media coverage of opponents of the policy change like Cuban-American senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ). A poll by Zogby Analytics found 56% of US voters in favor of the new policy and only 27% opposed. Among Latino voters, 70% supported the policy and 21% opposed it.

Support seemed to be especially strong among US business groups hoping to take advantage of the new relationship. “We deeply believe that an open dialogue and commercial exchange between the US and Cuban private sectors will bring shared benefits, and the steps announced today will go a long way in allowing opportunities for free enterprise to flourish,” US Chamber of Commerce president Thomas Donahue said on Dec. 17. Some US corporations did more than just support the move. Heavy equipment manufacturer Caterpillar Inc., personal care product maker Colgate-Palmolive Company and the Chubb Group of Insurance Companies have each spent tens of thousands of dollars lobbying for an end to the embargo. The liquor company Bacardi Limited and the Swedish-owned General Cigar Company have also been lobbying, while Carnival Cruise Lines, Marriott Hotels & Resorts, the Coca Cola Company and heavy equipment manufacturer John Deere have all expressed interest in doing business in Cuba. (The Hill 12/17/14; Fortune 12/18/14; LJ 12/20/14 from correspondent)

*4. Cuba: USAID Head Quits After Latest Scandal
On Dec. 17, less than a week after the Associated Press (AP) wire service reported on a failed effort by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) to co-opt Cuban hip-hop artists, agency administrator Rajiv Shah announced that he was leaving his post in February. Shah’s announcement came the same day as news that the US was moving towards normalizing relations with Cuba and that the Cuban government had released imprisoned USAID contractor Alan Gross. Shah didn’t give a reason for his resignation but said he had “mixed emotions.” In a statement released that day US president Barack Obama said Shah, who has headed the USAID since December 2009, “has been at the center of my administration’s efforts to advance our global development agenda.” (Bellingham (WA) Herald 12/17/14 from AP)

According to a Dec. 11 AP article, documents obtained by the wire service show that from 2009 to 2011 USAID “secretly infiltrated Cuba's underground hip-hop movement, recruiting unwitting rappers to spark a youth movement against the government.” The program, which the AP describes as “amateurish and profoundly unsuccessful,” was run through Washington, DC-based private contractor Creative Associates International and employed the services of Serbian rock promoter Rajko Bozic, who claims to have been part of the Serbian student movement that helped remove Slobodan Milosevic from power in 2000. The project’s contractors ended up “putting themselves and their targets at risk” and “compromising Cuba's vibrant hip-hop culture,” AP investigative reporters concluded. (AP 12/11/14)

AP reported earlier this year on two other failed USAID “democracy promotion” projects, also contracted through Creative Associates: the ZunZuneo “Cuban Twitter” program and an effort to build an anti-government youth movement. All three projects were carried out during Shah’s tenure as USAID administrator, although they appear to have started before he took over [see Updates #1215, 1230].

Shah, a former executive with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, preceded his resignation with a visit to Haiti over the weekend of Dec. 19. There he signed a partnership agreement with the healthcare nonprofit Partners in Health’s Haitian branch, Zanmi Lasante; he reportedly also met with Partners in Health co-founder Paul Farmer, who was the Obama’s administration’s first choice to head USAID. (Devex 12/17/14) Like the Cuban programs, USAID projects for Haiti have experienced a number of failures under Shah. The “New Settlement Program,” for example, was supposed to build 4,000 houses by 2012 to replace homes lost in the earthquake that struck southern Haiti in January 2010; the cost was to be about $53 million. Only about 816 houses had been built when USAID’s inspector general issued a report in April 2014, but the program’s cost had soared to $90 million. According to a Nov. 20 news item by the DC-based nonprofit Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), 750 of the houses are so badly constructed that they will need millions of dollars of repairs. (CEPR 11/20/14; Fiscal Times 12/9/14)

*5. Venezuela: US Imposes Sanctions on Officials
On Dec. 18 US president Barack Obama signed a bill into law that will impose sanctions on those Venezuela officials that the US government decides were involved in repressing demonstrators during rightwing protests last spring. The measure, which Congress passed the week before, would deny visas to the officials and freeze any assets they may hold in the US. Diplomats in Venezuela said dozens of officials could be affected, although the US is not expected to publish their names. A total of 43 people were reportedly killed in the three months of demonstrations, including government supporters, government opponents and security agents.

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro noted that Obama signed the bill just one day after announcing plans to normalize relations with Cuba following a half-century of sanctions. “These are the contradictions of an empire that seeks to impose its domination by whatever means, underestimating the power and conscience of our fatherland,” Maduro wrote in his Twitter account on Dec. 18. In a New York Times op-ed National Assembly president Diosdado Cabello Rondón noted the “unfortunate coincidence” that Congress passed the sanctions bill “just as scores of people demonstrating against police brutality were being arrested on the streets of New York and other cities” and “a Senate report revealed the extent of torture by the Central Intelligence Agency” [see Update #1246]. (NYT 12/19/14; Reuters 12/19/14)

*6. Links to alternative sources on: Latin America, Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Panama, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, Cuba, US/immigration

Climate Justice: Uniting Struggles Across Latin America

The Torture Consensus in U.S. Democracy (Latin America)

Argentina: Dock Workers End Strike at Major Grain Port

Argentina: Mining Corporations vs. Democracy

PEC 215: No Vote by Special Commission of Brazilian House

Gratitude for the Defense of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Brazil

Denunciation of the Suppression of Rights and Attempts to End the Indigenous Peoples of Brazil

Peru: campesino family scores win against mine

An Open Letter from Boaventura de Sousa Santos to Ecuadorian President Correa on Kicking the CONAIE Indigenous Movement Out of its Headquarters

CONAIE Indigenous Organization Evicted from Headquarters by Ecuadorian Government

Ecuador: Correa acts against CONAIE

Colombia: FARC declare ceasefire —amid fighting

Colombia: corrupt cops caught in crackdown

Beyond Ayotzinapa: How U.S. Intervention in Colombia Paved the Way for Mexico’s Human Rights Crisis

Venezuela sanctions highlight US hypocrisy on human rights

Tomgram: Greg Grandin, How the Iraq War Began in Panama

The Struggle for Indigenous Land and Autonomy in Honduras

Mining interests in Guatemala challenged by indigenous direct democracy

Unearthing the Truth: Mexican State Violence Beyond Ayotzinapa

The Revolution of Lupe Reyes (Mexico)

Collapse of Oil Prices, Fall in Peso Exacerbate Mexican Crisis

Mining Water in Sonora: Grupo México’s “Irregular” Water Permits in the Sonora, Yaqui, and San Pedro River Basins (Mexico)

Making Mining Dreams Come True in Mexico

Mining, Megaprojects, and Metrosexuals in Sonora (Mexico)

Atento Workers Seeking Democratic Union Lose Election Re-run (Mexico)

#Fergazinapa: Liberating Our Outrage, Remapping Our Action (Mexico/US)

Report on "Solidarity from the Ground Up: an Organizers' Tri-national Exchange" (Mexico/US/Canada)

Do Cubans Really Want U.S.-Style Internet Freedom?

Raúl Castro: The New Opening With the USA (Cuba)

The Fight against Migrant Family Detention Continues (US/immigration)

Migrant Deaths and Displacement Soar in 2014(US/immigration)

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