Pandemic Journal (# 1): Kristof and Osterholm Analyses

Sunday morning’s news outlets reported that worldwide there now are over 300,000 persons who have contracted the coronavirus disease (COVID-19)  and at least 12,944 have died of this infection while the U.S. statistics are more than 24,300 cases and more than 370 deaths. My State of Minnesota has 169 confirmed cases and its first death while the state’s most populous county (Hennepin with the City of Minneapolis), where I live, has  57 confirmed cases and no deaths.

This blogger has decided to periodically post his reactions to living through this pandemic.

This first post will focus on some of today’s overall perspectives from those who know about what is happening: Nicholas Kristof, a New York Times columnist, who has talked with a lot of experts, and Michael Osterholm, now at the University of Minnesota as Regents Professor, McKnight Presidential Endowed Chair in Public Health, the Director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP), Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Division of Environmental Health Sciences, School of Public Health, a professor in the Technological Leadership Institute, College of Science and Engineering, and an adjunct professor in the Medical School.[1]

Other posts will discuss other important developments in the crisis as well as his personal reactions to these problems.

Kristof’s Analysis[2]

One of the most disturbing Sunday articles was by Nicholas Kristof, who set forth what experts are seeing as the “worst case” and “best case” for the U.S. in March 2021, one year from now.

Worst Case

“More than two million Americans have died from the new coronavirus, almost all mourned without funerals. Countless others have died because hospitals are too overwhelmed to deal adequately with heart attacks, asthma and diabetic crises. The economy has cratered into a depression, for fiscal and monetary policy are ineffective when people fear going out, businesses are closed and tens of millions of people are unemployed. A vaccine still seems far off, immunity among those who have recovered proves fleeting and the coronavirus has joined the seasonal flu as a recurring peril.”

The U.S. “badly bungled testing, and President Trump repeatedly dismissed the coronavirus, saying it was ‘totally under control’ and ‘will disappear,’ and insisting he wasn’t ‘concerned at all.’ . . .The United States has still done only a bit more than 10 percent as many tests per capita as Canada, Austria and Denmark.”

“By some counts, the United States is just eight days behind Italy on a similar trajectory, and it’s difficult to see how America can pirouette from the path of Italy to that of South Korea. The United States may already have 100,000 infected citizens — nobody knows. That’s too many to trace. Indeed, one can argue that the U.S. is not only on the same path as Italy but is also less prepared, for America has fewer doctors and hospital beds per capita than Italy does — and a shorter life expectancy even in the best of times.”

“Mitre, a nonprofit that does work on health care, calculated that coronavirus cases are doubling more quickly in the United States than in any other country it examined, including Italy and Iran.” Two experts’ models suggest “that up to 366,000 I.C.U. beds might be needed in the United States for coronavirus patients at one time, more than 10 times the number available.”

Therefore, the U.S. “should be urgently ramping up investment in vaccines and therapies, addressing the severe shortages of medical supplies and equipment, and giving retired physicians and military medics legal authority to practice in a crisis.” But that is not happening. Moreover, the U.S. “isn’t protecting health workers with the same determination” as China did after its initial failure to do so.“In the worst-case scenario, will social services collapse in some areas? Will order fray? Gun sales are increasing, because some people expect chaos and crime.” The U.S. “is in a weaker position than some other countries to confront the virus because it is the only advanced country that doesn’t have universal health coverage, and the only one that does not guarantee paid sick leave. With chronic diseases, the burden of these gaps is felt primarily by the poor; with infectious diseases, the burden will be shared by all Americans.”

Best Case

“Life largely returned to normal by the late summer of 2020, and the economy has rebounded strongly. The United States used a sharp, short shock in the spring of 2020 to break the cycle of transmission; warm weather then reduced new infections and provided a summer respite for the Northern Hemisphere. By the second wave in the fall, mutations had attenuated the coronavirus, many people were immune and drugs were shown effective in treating it and even in reducing infection. Thousands of Americans died, mostly octogenarians and nonagenarians and some with respiratory conditions, but by February 2021, vaccinations were introduced worldwide and the virus was conquered.”

According to Dr. Larry Brilliant, an epidemiologist, “The best case is that the virus mutates and actually dies out.” Another expert,  Dr. Charles G. Prober, a professor at Stanford Medical School, agreed. Two other lethal coronaviruses, SARS and MERS, both petered out, and that is possible here. “My hope is that Covid-19 will not survive.”

“Several countries have shown that decisive action can turn the tide on Covid-19, at least for a time.” This especially is true for Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong that “responded with the standard epidemiological tool kit: vigilance and rapid response, testing, isolating the sick, tracing contacts, quarantining those exposed, ensuring social distancing and providing reliable information. They did not shut down their entire countries.”

It is possible that the U.S. and other Northern Hemisphere nations soon will experience warmer weather that will dampen the coronavirus as was true with two of the four other coronaviruses.

“There is hope that some antiviral medicines currently in clinical trials will be successful.”

Finally there is hope that “the coronavirus may be less lethal than was originally feared, so long as health care systems are not overwhelmed.”

Yet another expert, “Dr. Tara C. Smith, an epidemiologist at Kent State University, summed up all of these considerations: ‘I’m not pessimistic. I think this can work.’ She thinks it will take eight weeks of social distancing to have a chance to slow the virus, and success will depend on people changing behaviors and on hospitals not being overrun. ‘If warm weather helps, if we can get these drugs, if we can get companies to produce more ventilators, we have a window to tamp this down.’”

Our Responses

“This crisis should be a wake-up call to address long-term vulnerabilities. That means providing universal health coverage and paid sick leave.”  The coronavirus legislation adopted last week does not do that. “It guarantees sick leave to only about one-fifth of private-sector workers. It’s a symbol of the inadequacy of America’s preparedness.”

“More broadly, the United States must remedy its health priorities: We pour resources into clinical medicine but neglect public health. . . . The United States has a decentralized and spotty public health system, and it has endured painful budget cuts, yet historically public health has saved more lives than clinical medicine.”

Osterholm’s Perspective[3]

U.S. Difficulty in Appreciating Risk of Pandemics

First, the U.S. government and citizens “had almost this sense of invincibility that we had a border that would not allow such infectious-disease agents to penetrate … . We, of course, know that is folly. A microbe anywhere in the world today can be anywhere in the world tomorrow.”

Second, “we tend to lack creative imagination. {Yet those ]who knew health care knew that health care [had been] carved down to the bone for which there was no resiliency of any substantial nature, no excess capacity, no monies to stockpile large volumes of protective equipment.”  In addition, there has been “no real understanding of the vulnerability of this country outsourcing all of its drug supply manufacturing to places like China.”

Third, “I think it’s human nature to not want to believe this” risk.

This January Osterholm wrote a notification for the CIDRAP leadership forum, saying, “ “I now am absolutely convinced this is going to be a pandemic. This will be a worldwide epidemic. We will see major transmission around the world. And what has happened in Wuhan [China] will happen in other places.” But this warning had no impact on U.S. policies.

 U.S. Needs ‘New Normal’

 U.S. and others need to find a new normal, a way to live with COVID-19. We “can’t shelter in place for 18 months. This isn’t going to work.” Instead, we need a national goal.

We must “make every effort to … protect those most vulnerable. And we [need to] continue to emphasize social distancing, … [and] keep the hospitals from being overrun. We [must] keep doing that until we get a vaccine. . . . It won’t be perfect. Some people will get sick, some may die.”

“People are really concerned. They’re scared … but they’re not panicking. They want straight talk.” They want the truth, and they are not getting it from the Trump administration.

“[A recent British scientific paper] said crowd size really makes no difference. We really have no data on crowd size. Their modeling says we have to have contact … that if you shook hands with all 50,000 people in an arena, you got a problem. But if you didn’t, the risk of transmission is not nearly as great as people think it is. We also don’t have good data that we have major transmission in schools from kids to kids and that they take it home to Mom and Dad.”

“Singapore did not close schools. Hong Kong did. We saw no difference. . . . {On the other hand,] I do know it makes a difference in saving lives in a hospital when you take out 20% of nurses, doctors, respiratory therapists who can’t work because they’re at home [to watch their kids]. I know that is a risk in putting grandparents in so that some can keep working.”

He is hopeful about some new potential treatments for COVID-19, such as chloroquine, that are being studied, but that, he says, is not a strategy.

Conclusion

As a retired lawyer in his 80’s with no experience or expertise on these global health issues, I concur in Professor Osterholm’s assertion that others and I want the truth from our government and national and local leaders. That truth will include admissions that they do not yet know certain important factors, that they are investigating those issues in a focused, disciplined, scientific manner and that the rest of us need to follow developments in the pandemic and follow the straightforward instructions: wash your hands frequently and carefully, maintain at least six-feet social distancing with other people and do not join groups of (10?) or more people. As noted above, other posts will explore my personal reactions to all of this situation.

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[1] Osterholm also currently holds, and has held, other important positions in this field and is the co-author of “the 2017 book, Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs, in which he not only details the most pressing infectious disease threats of our day but lays out a nine-point strategy on how to address them.” (CiDRAP, Michael T. Osterholm, PhD, MPH.)

[2] Kristof, The Best-Case Outcome for the Coronavirus, and the Worst, N.Y. Times (Mar. 20, 2020).

[3] Burcum, Coronavirus pandemic: What’s ‘normal’ now? What’s next? An interview with Michael Osterholm, StarTribune (Mar. 22, 2020). /

 

Cuba Pays $60 Million of Indebtedness to Major Creditor Nations     

The week of October 15 Cuba paid $60 million of indebtiness to 14 wealthy creditor nations. Last year Cuba paid $40 million to the same group. The total debt is $2.6 billion after the creditors in 2015 forgave $8.5 billion of $11.1 billion upon which Cuba had defaulted through 1986 plus charges.[1]

These creditor nations known as the Club of Paris are the following: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

Under the 2015 agreement, Cuba agreed for the first time to grant the creditors equity in development projects, in areas like manufacturing and agriculture, in exchange for a portion of their debt holdings. Many of these restructuring agreements include the establishment of so-called counter-value funds, under which a percentage of debt is discounted in exchange for the potential profits stemming from participation by a creditor country’s firms in Cuba joint-development projects.

The counter-value funds have an estimated combined value of around $750 million of the $2.6 billion owed. Japan, Spain, France and Italy – Cuba’s largest Paris Club creditors – are furthest along in negotiating swaps.

  • For example, a $46 million French project to develop cattle ranching and dairy products in central Camaguey province is ready to sign, according to France’s ambassador to Cuba, Jean-Marie Bruno.
  • Another example is Spain which has a project ready to manufacture cardboard and another aluminium structures for construction capable of resisting earthquakes and hurricanes, both involving Spanish companies.

This access to Cuban development projects gives the European countries and companies an advantage over U.S. companies who are banned by various U.S. laws from such projects.

This payment happened during dire economic times for Cuba due to the political and economic crisis in its ally Venezuela, declines in Cuban exports and tourism due, in part, to the damages caused by Hurricane Irma.

Cuba’s payment in these circumstances showed the importance Cuba attaches to the 2015 agreement with this group of major creditor nations.

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[1] Reuters, Cash-Strapped Cuba Makes Debt Payment to Major Creditors-Diplomats, N.Y. Times (Oct. 18, 2017); Chow, Cuba Reaches Deal to Pay $2.6 Billion in Arrears to Paris Club, W.S.J. (Dec. 12, 2015); Paris Club, Agreement on the Debt Between Cuba and the Group of Creditors of Cuba (Dec. 12, 2015).

U.N. Security Council Orders More Negotiations About the Western Sahara Conflict

Disputes over the Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony, have followed its 1975 annexation by Morocco in opposition to competing claims by the Polisario Front. In 1991 the U.N. brokered a cease-fire and established a peacekeeping monitoring mission and to help prepare a referendum on the territory’s future that has never taken place. So far the parties have been unable to agree upon how to decide on self-determination. Morocco wants an autonomy plan under Moroccan sovereignty while Polisario wants a U.N.-backed referendum including on the question of independence. Below is a map of the Western Sahara.

Western_sahara_map_showing_morocco_and_polisaro.gif

On April 28, 2017, the U.N. Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2351 extending the mandate of the U.N. Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) until 30 April 2018 and calling on the parties to that conflict to resume negotiations under the auspices of the Secretary-General without preconditions and in good faith, in order to facilitate a just, lasting and mutually acceptable political solution.[1]

Other provisions of the resolution called on the parties to cooperate fully with the operations of MINURSO, to take the necessary steps to ensure unhindered movement for U.N. and associated personnel in carrying out their mandate, to demonstrate the political will to work in an atmosphere propitious for dialogue in order to resume negotiations, to implement the relevant Security Council resolutions, to resume cooperation with the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, to ensure that the humanitarian needs of refugees were adequately addressed.  It also supported an increase in the ratio of medical personnel within the current uniformed authorization, as requested in the Secretary-General’s most recent report to address MINURSO’s severely overstretched medical capacity. Yet another part of the resolution noted that both sides had withdrawn troops from the Guerguerat area of the territory, a vast swath of desert bordering the Atlantic Ocean that has been contested since 1975.

In support of the resolution, U.S. Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Ambassador Michele Sisson, emphasized hat peacekeeping missions should support political solutions, said that postponing the [referendum] had been the key to allowing MINURSO to close out the 2016 chapter in the territory.  The U.S. was pleased with the mandate renewal, which helped in returning the Council’s attention where it belonged — supporting a political process to resolve the situation on the ground.  Emphasizing that the situation must change, she said the Council must look at the “big picture” in Western Sahara, including the absence of any political process for many years, she said.  The resolution demonstrated the importance of the parties working with the U.N. to return to the table.  The Mission must be able to hire the right staff in order to be as effective as possible, and to adjust components that were not working, as well as they should.  The U.S. would watch closely to see what happened on the ground, she said.

Also speaking in support of the resolution were the other Security Council members: Uruguay, Sweden, Senegal, Ethiopia, China, France, United Kingdom, Italy, Bolivia, Japan, Ukraine and the Russian Federation.

Although the resolution was passed unanimously, France, a permanent Council member, backs Morocco, its former colony, while Polisario has been supported by some non-permanent council members and by South Africa.

Afterwards Morocco’s foreign ministry said the kingdom was satisfied with the resolution and hoped for a “real process” toward a solution, which it said should be on its autonomy initiative. Morocco also called for neighboring Mauritania and Algeria, the latter of which backs Polisario and maintains tense relations with Morocco, to be involved in negotiations. Algeria, on the other hand, called the resolution a victory for the Sahrawi cause that put the process “back on track.”

Morocco recently has made at least two diplomatic moves that may be related to enhancing its position in such negotiations.

First, on January 31, 2017, the African Union (AU) at its Summit, 39 to 9, approved Morocco’s request for readmission after having left the AU in 1984 in response to a majority of its members recognizing the disputed territory in the Western Sahara.

Morocco’s King Mohammed VI in his speech at this year’s AU Summit emphasized “how indispensable Africa is to Morocco and how indispensable Morocco is to Africa.” As evidence he mentioned that “since 2000, Morocco has [signed] nearly a thousand agreements with African countries, in various fields of cooperation,” including providing scholarships for Africans to attend Moroccan universities, launching the African Atlantic Gas Pipeline, creating a regional electricity market, constructing fertilizer production plants, creating the Adaptation of African Agriculture program to respond to climate change. These actions, he asserted, demonstrated Morocco’s “commitment to the development and prosperity of African citizens, [who] have the means and the genius; [so that] together, we can fulfill the aspirations of our peoples.”

This readmission, say analysts, also enhances Morocco’s status in upcoming negotiations over the Western Sahara although the King did not mention this in his speech. Instead, he made a modest allusion to this conflict when he said, “We know that we do not have unanimous backing from this prestigious assembly. Far be it from us to spark off a sterile debate! We have absolutely no intention of causing division, as some would like to insinuate!”[2]

The other diplomatic move that can be seen as an attempt to soften resistance towards Morocco’s position in negotiations over the Western Sahara was its re-establishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba, as discussed in a prior post.

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[1] U.N. Security Council, Press Release: Security Council Extends Mandate of United Nations Mission (April 28, 2017); U.S. Mission to the U.N., Ambassador Sisson Remarks at the Adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 2351 on the [U.N.] Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) (April 28, 2017); U.N. Security Council, Press Release: Secretary-General Welcomes Withdrawal of Moroccan, Frente Polisario Elements from Western Sahara’s Guerguerat Area, Urging Adherence to Cease Fire (Apr. 28, 2017); Reuters, U.N. Security Council Backs New Western Sahara Talks Push, N.Y. Times (Apr. 29, 2017); Assoc. Press, UN Council Backs New Effort to End Western Sahara Conflict, N.Y. Times (Apr. 28, 2017).

[2] Quinn, Morocco rejoins African Union after more than 30 years, Guardian (Jan. 31, 2017); Morocco Ministry of Foreign Affairs, His Majesty the King delivers a speech at the 28th Summit of the African Union (AU) in Addis Ababa (Jan. 31, 2017); Abubeker, Why Has Morocco Rejoined the African Union After 33 Years, Newsweek Feb. 2, 2017).

U.N. General Assembly Again Condemns U.S. Embargo of Cuba

U.N. General Assembly Voting Results Screen
U.N. General Assembly   Voting Results Screen

On October 28, 2014, the U.N. General Assembly by a vote of 188 to 2 again condemned the U.S. embargo of Cuba. The two negative votes were cast by the U.S. and by Israel while three small Pacific nations abstained–Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Palau. All the other U.N. members supported the resolution. [1]

 The Resolution

The resolution [A/69/L.4] reiterated the General Assembly’s “call upon all States to refrain from promulgating and applying laws and measures of the kind referred to in the preamble to the present resolution [‘the economic, commercial and financial embargo imposed by the [U.S.] against Cuba’ and the Helms-Burton Act], in conformity with their obligations under the Charter of the United Nations and international law, which, inter alia, reaffirm the freedom of trade and navigation.”

The resolution also “again urges States that have and continue to apply such laws and measures [i.e., the U.S.] to take the steps necessary to repeal or invalidate them as soon as possible in accordance with their legal regime.”

Cuba’s Statement Supporting the Resolution

Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla
Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla

Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla, the Cuban Minister for Foreign Affairs, introducing the resolution, said that in recent times “the economic, commercial and financial blockade imposed by the [U.S.] against Cuba had been tightened, and its extraterritorial implementation had also been strengthened through the imposition of unprecedented fines, totaling $11 billion against 38 banks . . . for carrying out transactions with Cuba and other countries.” In addition, Cuba’s “accumulated economic damages of the blockade totaled $1.1 trillion . . . [and] human damages were on the rise.”

Nevertheless, “Cuba had offered every possible form of assistance to the [U.S.] in the wake of disasters there, such as in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Cuba had never been a threat to the national security of the [U.S.].  Opinion polls showed that there was increasing support from all sectors of [U.S.] society for lifting the blockade.  Religious leaders had citied legitimate, indisputable ethical and humanitarian reasons.“

In addition, ”the blockade was harmful to . . . the [U.S.]. The ‘absurd and ridiculous’ inclusion of Cuba on the [U.S.] list of States that sponsored international terrorism redounded to the discredit of the [U.S.].  Cuba would never renounce its sovereignty or the path chosen by its people to build a more just, efficient, prosperous and sustainable socialism.”  Neither, he continued, would his Government “give up its quest for a different international order, nor cease in its struggle for ‘the equilibrium of the world.’”

Rodríguez also invited the U.S. government “to establish a mutually respectful relation, based on reciprocity. We can live and deal with each other in a civilized way, despite our differences.”

Other Countries’ Statements Supporting the Resolution [2]

The following Latin American countries voiced support for the resolution: Argentina (MERCOSUR [3]) (embargo was “morally unjustifiable” and violated “the spirit of multilateralism and was immoral, unjust and illegal”); Barbados (CARICOM [4]); Bolivia (Group of 77 [5] and China); Brazil (Group of 77 and CELAC [6]); Colombia; Costa Rica (CELAC)); Ecuador; El Salvador (Group of 77 and CARICOM); Mexico; Nicaragua; St. Vincent and the Grenadines (CARICOM, Non-Aligned Movement, [7] Group of 77 and CELAC); Uruguay; and Venezuela.

The African supporters of the resolution that spoke were Algeria (Non-Aligned Movement, Group of 77, Group of African States [8] and Organization of Islamic Cooperation [9]); Angola; Kenya (Group of 77, Non-Aligned Movement and African Group); Malawi (African Group); South Africa (Group of 77, Non-Aligned Movement and African Group); Sudan (Group of 77, Non-Aligned Movement and Organization of Islamic Cooperation); United Republic of Tanzania; Zambia (Non-Aligned Movement) and Zimbabwe (Non-Aligned Movement, Group of 77 and African Group).

From Asia and the Pacific were Belarus; China (Group of 77); Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea); Indonesia (Group of 77);  India (Group of 77 and Non-Aligned Movement); Iran (Non-Aligned Movement); Lao People’s Democratic Republic; Myanmar (Group of 77 and Non-Aligned Movement); Russian Federation; Solomon Islands; and Viet Nam (Non-Aligned Movement, Group of 77 and China).

Middle Eastern countries speaking in favor of the resolution were Egypt, Saudi Arabia (Organization of Islamic Cooperation); and Syria (Non-Aligned Movement, Group of 77 and China).

The sole European supporter of the resolution that spoke at the session was Italy (European Union [10]), which said the U.S.’ “extraterritorial legislation and unilateral administrative and judicial measures were negatively affecting European Union interests”).

U.S. Statement Opposing the Resolution

Although Israel voted against the resolution, it chose not to speak in support of its vote. Only the U.S. by Ambassador Ronald D. Godard, U.S. Senior Advisor for Western Hemisphere Affairs, tried to justify the negative vote.

Ronald D. Godard
Ronald D. Godard

Ambassador Godard said the U.S. “conducts its economic relationships with other countries in accordance with its national interests and its principles. Our sanctions toward Cuba are part of our overall effort to help the Cuban people freely exercise their human rights and fundamental freedoms, and determine their own future, consistent with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the democratic principles to which the United Nations itself is committed.”

Ambassador Godard also said, “the Cuban government uses this annual resolution in an attempt to shift blame for the island’s economic problems away from its own policy failures. The Cuban government now publicly recognizes that its economic woes are caused by the economic policies it has pursued for the last, past half-century. We note and welcome recent changes that reflect this acknowledgement, such as those that allow greater self-employment and liberalization of the real estate market. But the Cuban economy will not thrive until the Cuban government permits a free and fair labor market, fully empowers Cuban independent entrepreneurs, respects intellectual property rights, allows unfettered access to information via the Internet, opens its state monopolies to private competition and adopts the sound macro-economic policies that have contributed to the success of Cuba’s neighbors in Latin America.”

According to Ambassador Godard, the U.S. “remains a deep and abiding friend of the Cuban people. The Cuban people continue to receive as much as $2 billion per year in remittances and other private contributions from the [U.S.]. This support . . . was made possible . . . by U.S. policy choices. By the Cuban government’s own account, the [U.S.] is one of Cuba’s principal trading partners. In 2013, the [U.S.] exported approximately $359 million in agricultural products, medical devices, medicine and humanitarian items to Cuba. Far from restricting aid to the Cuban people, we are proud that the people of the [U.S.] and its companies are among the leading providers of humanitarian assistance to Cuba. All of this trade and assistance is conducted in conformity with our sanctions program, which is carefully calibrated to allow and encourage the provision of support to the Cuban people.”

Furthermore, the U.S. “places the highest priority on building and strengthening connections between the Cuban people and [our] people. U.S. travel, remittance, information exchange, humanitarian and people-to-people policies updated in 2009 and 2011 provide the Cuban people alternative sources of information, help them take advantage of limited opportunities for self-employment and private property and strengthen independent civil society. The hundreds of thousands of Americans who have sent remittances and traveled to the island, under categories of purposeful travel promoted by President Obama, remain the best ambassadors for our democratic ideals.”

Ambassador Godard continued, “[The U.S.] strongly supports the Cuban people’s desire to determine their own future, through the free flow of information to, from, and within Cuba. The right to receive and impart information and ideas through any media is set forth in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is the Cuban government’s policies that continue to prevent enjoyment of this right. The Cuban government now claims to share our goal of helping the Cuban people access the Internet. Yet the Cuban government has failed to offer widespread access to the Internet through its high-speed cable with Venezuela.  Instead, it continues to impose barriers to information for the Cuban people while disingenuously blaming U.S. policy.”

“Moreover, the Cuban government continues to detain Alan Gross, a U.S. citizen who was sentenced to 15 years in prison for facilitating Internet access for Cuba’s small Jewish community. [[11]] The [U.S.] calls on Cuba to release Mr. Gross immediately, [[12]] allow unrestricted access to the Internet, and tear down the digital wall of censorship it has erected around the Cuban people.

 {T]his resolution only serves to distract from the real problems facing the Cuban people. . . . Though Cuba’s contributions to the fight against Ebola are laudable, they do not excuse or diminish the regime’s treatment of its own people. We encourage this world body to support the desires of the Cuban people to choose their own future. By doing so, it would truly advance the principles the United Nations Charter was founded upon, and the purposes for which the United Nations was created.”

Media Coverage of the Resolution and Debate

 U.S. media coverage of this important U.N. vote was almost non-existent. It was not mentioned in the “World” or “Americas” news sections of the New York Times, and only its “Opinion” section had a short article about the issue. It got no mention whatsoever in the Wall Street Journal. Not even the Miami Herald, which has a separate page for Cuba news, mentioned it. [13]

At 2:37 p.m. on October 28th the Associated Press published a release on the subject, and the Washington Post published it online while the StarTribune of Minneapolis/St. Paul picked it up the next day in its online, but not its print, edition.

Cuba’s state-owned newspaper, Granma, of course, headlined this vote while stating that the embargo has caused $1.1 trillion of damage to the Cuban economy and “incalculable human suffering.” Its article also emphasized that this was the 23rd consecutive such resolution with a table showing that the number of votes in favor of the resolutions has increased from 59 in 1992 to 188 in 2012-2014, that the largest number of votes against the resolutions was only 4 in 1993 and 2004-2007 and that the number of abstentions has decreased from 71 in 1992 to 1 in 2005-2007 and now 3 since 2010.

Conclusion

This overwhelming international opposition to the U.S. embargo in and of itself should be enough to cause the U.S. to end the embargo. Moreover, the embargo has not forced Cuba to come begging to the U.S. for anything that the U.S. wants. The U.S. policy is a failure. The New York Times recently called for abandonment of this policy as has this blog in urging reconciliation of the two countries, in an open letter to President Obama and in a rebuttal of the President’s asserted rationale for the embargo and other anti-Cuban policies.

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[1] This post is based upon the sources embedded above and upon U.N. General Assembly Press Release [GA/11574], As General Assembly Demands End to Cuba Blockade for Twenty-Thjrd Consecutive Year, Country’s Foreign Minister Cites Losses Exceeding $1 Trillion (Oct. 28, 2014); Londoño, On Cuban Embargo, It’s the U.S. and Israel Against the World, Again, N.Y. Times (Oct. 29, 2014); Associated Press, UN General Assembly Condemns US Cuba Embargo (Oct. 28, 2014); U.S. Dep’t of State, Explanation of Vote by Ambassador Ronald D. Godard on the Cuba Resolution in the General Assembly Hall (Oct. 28, 2014). The General Assembly also has videos of the debate (A and B). A prior post reviewed the 2011 General Assembly’s adoption of a similar resolution against the embargo.

[2] Many of the cited statements supporting the resolution were issued on behalf of, or aligned with, larger groups of nations as noted above. In addition, prior to the October 28th session of the General Assembly, the U.N. Secretary General submitted a report containing statements against the embargo from 154 states and 27 U.N. agencies.

[3] MERCOSUR (Southern Common Market) is a customs union and trading bloc of five South American countries with five other associate members in the continent.

[4] CARICOM (Caribbean Community) is a group of 15 Caribbean countries with five associate members for economic cooperation.

[5] The Group of 77 was established in 1964 by 77 developing countries to promote their collective economic interests and South-South cooperation; now there are 134 members that have retained the original name for historical significance.

[6] CELAC (Community of Latin American and Caribbean States) is a group of 33 states in the region to deepen economic integration and combat the influence of the U.S.

[7] The Non-Aligned Movement is a group of 115 developing countries that are not aligned with or against any major power bloc. Its current focus is advocacy of solutions to global economic and other problems

[8] The African Group is a group of 54 African states that are U.N. Members.

[9] The Organization of Islamic Cooperation is a group of 57 states that seek to protect the interests of the Muslim world in the spirit of promoting peace and harmony in the world.

[10] The European Union is a group of 28 European states that have combined for a peaceful, united and prosperous Europe.

[11] The activities in Cuba by Mr. Gross are not so simple. A Cuban court in 2011 found him guilty of participating in a “subversive project of the U.S. government that aimed to destroy the revolution through the use of communications systems out of the control of authorities,” and sentenced him to 15 years in prison. According to his own lawsuit against the U.S. Government, and subsequent disclosures, Gross alleged the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and its contractor, DAI, sent him on five semi-covert trips to Cuba without proper training, protection or even a clear sense of the Cuban laws that led to his detainment. The case highlighted the frequent haste and lack of attention to the risks of the USAID programs in Cuba under the Helms-Burton Act, which allowed for money to be set aside for “democracy building efforts” that might hasten the fall of Fidel and Raúl Castro.

[12] In discussions with the U.S., Cuba already has expressed a willingness to exchange Mr. Gross for one or more of the three of “the Cuban Five” who remain in U.S. prisons.

[13] Nor did I find any mention of the vote in London’s Guardian or Madrid’s El Pais.

 

U.S. State Department’s Report on International Religious Freedom in 2013

USDeptStateseal

On July 28, 2014, the U.S. State Department released its annual report on religious freedom around the world.[1]

 Secretary of State Kerry’s Comments

Announcing the release of the report, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said although the U.S. was “obviously far from perfect,” it was important for the U.S. to treasure freedom of religion as “a universal value. . . . The freedom to profess and practice one’s faith is the birthright of every human being . . . [and] are properly recognized under international law. The promotion of international religious freedom is a priority for President Obama and it is a priority for me as Secretary of State.” In short, “religious freedom remains an integral part of our global diplomatic engagement.”

Executive Summary of the Report

The world had the largest displacement of religious communities in recent memory. In almost every corner of the globe, millions of Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and others representing a range of faiths were forced from their homes on account of their religious beliefs. Out of fear or by force, entire neighborhoods are emptying of residents. Communities are disappearing from their traditional and historic homes and dispersing across the geographic map.” In conflict zones (Syria, Central African Republic and Burma), this mass displacement has become a pernicious norm.

All around the world, individuals were subjected to discrimination, violence and abuse, perpetrated and sanctioned violence for simply exercising their faith, identifying with a certain religion, or choosing not to believe in a higher deity at all. Countries where this was a significant problem were Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Eritrea. Throughout Europe, the historical stain of anti-Semitism continued to be a fact of life.

Governments repressed religious freedom. Governments from all regions subjected members of religious groups to repressive policies, discriminatory laws, disenfranchisement, and discriminatory application of laws. These governmental actions not only infringed on freedom of religion themselves, but they also often created a permissive environment for broader human rights abuses. Restrictive policies included laws criminalizing religious activities and expression, prohibitions on conversion or proselytizing, blasphemy laws, and stringent registration requirements or discriminatory application of registration requirements for religious organizations. This was especially true in North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan, China, Cuba, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Burma, Russia and Bahrain.

Governments engaged in discrimination, impunity and displacement of religious minorities. When governments choose not to combat discrimination on the basis of religion and intolerance, it breeds an environment in which intolerant and violent groups are emboldened, even to the point of physically attacking individuals on the basis of their religious beliefs. Governments in these countries failed to protect vulnerable communities and many religious minority communities were disproportionately affected, resulting in a large number of refugees and internally displaced persons. This was especially true in Syria, Sri Lanka, Egypt, Iraq, Bangladesh, Indonesia, India and Nigeria. Rising anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment in the following countries of Europe demonstrated that intolerance is not limited to countries in active conflict:Belgium, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Sweden and United Kingdom.

Religious minority communities were disproportionately affected by violence, discrimination and harassment. In many regions of the world, religious intolerance was linked to civil and economic strife and resulted in mass migration of members of religious minority communities throughout the year. In some of these areas, the outward migration of certain communities has the potential to permanently change the demographics of entire regions.

“Countries of Particular Concern”

Pursuant to the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, the Secretary of State designated the following countries as “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPC): Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Such countries “engage in or tolerate particularly severe violations of religious freedom” or “systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom, including torture, cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, prolonged detention without charges, abduction or clandestine detention of persons, or other flagrant denial of the right to life, liberty, or the security of persons based on religion.”

Turkmenistan, which is new to this State Department list, is the only one of eight countries recommended for such designation by the latest report from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. The others so recommended by the Commission are Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, Tajikistan and Vietnam.

Ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom

Simultaneously with this report’s release, the Obama administration announced the nomination of Rabbi David Saperstein as the next ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. Rabbi Saperstein, a reform rabbi and lawyer known for his work in Washington to advance religious freedom, would be the first non-Christian to lead the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom, if confirmed by the Senate.

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[1] This post is based upon the International Religious Freedom Report for 2013 (July 28, 2014); Secretary Kerry, Remarks at Rollout of the 2013 Report on International Religious Freedom (July 28, 2014); Assistant Secretary Malinowski, Remarks on the Release of the 2013 Report on International Religious Freedom (July 28, 2014); Department of State, Fact Sheet: 2013 Report on International Religious Freedom (July 28, 2014). Earlier posts covered the international law regarding religious freedom and the State Department’s reports on the subject for 2011 and 2012.

Cuban Blogger Obtains Cuban Passport and Plans Trip to Latin America, North America and Europe

YoaniSanchez

From her home in Havana, Cuba, Yoani Sanchez has been courageously blogging her critical comments on many aspects of life in her country as noted in a prior post.

In January 2013, under Cuban’s new law granting Cubans increased ability to obtain passports, she received her Cuban passport. She was overjoyed by this development after she had been denied a passport 20 times over the last five years.

Upon receiving the great news that she would obtain a passport, she bravely said in her blog:

  • She intends to “continue ‘pushing the limits’ of reform, to experience first hand how far the willingness to change really goes. To transcend national frontiers I will make no concessions. If the Yoani Sánchez that I am cannot travel, I am not going to metamorphose myself into someone else to do it. Nor, once abroad, will I disguise my opinions so they will let me ‘leave again’ or to please certain ears, nor will I take refuge in silence about that for which they can refuse to let me return. I will say what I think of my country and of the absence of freedoms we Cubans suffer. No passport will function as a gag for me, no trip as bait.”
  • “These particulars clarified, I am preparing the itinerary for my stay outside of Cuba. I hope to be able to participate in numerous events that will help me grow professionally and civically, to answer questions, to clarify details of the smear campaigns that have been launched against me… and in my absence. I will visit those places that once invited me, when the will of a few wouldn’t let me come; I will navigate the Internet like one obsessed, and once again climb mountains I haven’t seen for nearly ten years. But what I am most passionate about is that I am going to meet many of you, my readers. I have the first symptoms of this anxiety; the butterflies in my stomach provoked by the proximity of the unknown, and the waking up in the middle of the night asking myself, what will you look like, sound like? And me? Will I be as you imagine me?”

On February 17th she plans a worldwide tour visiting Latin American (Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Peru, Colombia and Mexico), North America (U.S. and Canada) and Europe (Italy, Czech Republic, Poland, Switzerland and Germany).

I pray that there will not be any last minute move by the Cuban government to block her leaving the island. I look forward to her comments on Cuba during her visits to these countries.

Yoani, congratulations and God Speed on your journey!

The Latest U.S. Report on International Terrorism

 On July 31, 2012, the U.S. Department of State issued its latest annual report on terrorism in the world: Country Reports on Terrorism 2011. This post will review the report as a whole.

This report was submitted in compliance with 22 U.S.C. § 2656f, which defines “terrorism” for this purpose as ” premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents” while the term  “international terrorism” means “terrorism involving citizens or the territory of more than one country.”

The report included the following statistics on terrorists attack during the year:

Area Number of Attacks
Near East & South Asia    7,721
Africa       978
Europe & Eurasia       561
East Asia & Pacific       543
Western Hemisphere       480
     TOTAL   10,283

The report’s “Strategic Assessment ” section puts all of this into a worldwide context. It highlights the death of Osama bin Laden and other top leaders of al-Qa’ida as putting its “network on a path of decline that will be difficult to reverse.” However, its affiliated groups around the world increased their impact. Iran was also criticized for its lethal support of terrorism in Iraq and Palestine. Others specifically mentioned in this Assessment were certain terrorist groups in South-Asia, the Kurdistan Workers Party in Turkey, anarchists in Greece and Italy, dissident Republican groups in Northern Ireland and Anders Behring Breivik (the Norwegian right-wing extremist who killed 77 people last July).

The statutory authorization of this report requires the Department of State to identify countries that have “repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism” as “State Sponsors of Terrorism.” This year the following four countries were so designated: Iran, Sudan, Syria and Cuba. A subsequent post will examine this designation of Cuba.

A wide range of sanctions may be imposed as a result of a State Sponsor of Terrorism designation, including: (a) a ban on arms-related exports and sales; (b) controls over exports of dual-use items, requiring 30-day Congressional notification for goods or services that could significantly enhance the terrorist-list country’s military capability or ability to support terrorism: (c) prohibitions on economic assistance; and (d) imposition of miscellaneous financial and other restrictions.