Wednesday, December 17, 2014

After 53 years of hostility between the United States and Cuba, the timing to make amends was perfect for both governments... - AP | Obama Announces U.S. and Cuba Will Resume Relations - NYT

» After 53 years, time is right for US and Cuba
17/12/14 15:21 from AP Top Headlines At 7:05 a.m. EDT
MEXICO CITY (AP) -- After 53 years of hostility between the United States and Cuba, the timing to make amends was perfect for both governments.... 

» Key dates in US relations with Cuba
17/12/14 15:03 from AP Top Headlines At 7:05 a.m. EDT
Key events in U.S.-Cuba relations:...

» Obama Announces U.S. and Cuba Will Resume Relations
17/12/14 15:06 from NYT > International
The U.S. will open an embassy in Havana for the first time in more than a half century after the release of an American contractor held in prison for five years, officials said.

» Mystery man among 5 freed in historic U.S.-Cuba deal
17/12/14 15:06 from - World
Five men are tasting freedom for the first time in years -- including one President Barack Obama described as "one of the most important intelligence agents that the United States has ever had in Cuba" -- in a historic deal between the U...

» Q. and A. on Alan Gross, American Prisoner Freed in Cuba - New York Times
17/12/14 15:02 from Google News - World
New York Times Q. and A. on Alan Gross, American Prisoner Freed in Cuba New York Times Q. Who is Alan Gross? A. Alan P. Gross, 65, is a former government contractor from Maryland who was detained in Havana on Dec. 3, 2009, for delivering...

» 14 charged in deadly 2012 meningitis outbreak
17/12/14 15:12 from AP Top Headlines At 7:05 a.m. EDT
BOSTON (AP) -- In the biggest criminal case ever brought in the U.S. over contaminated medicine, 14 former owners or employees of a Massachusetts pharmacy were charged Wednesday in connection with a 2012 meningitis outbreak that killed 6... 

Mocking Kim Jong Un, a Serious Matter

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A new Hollywood comedy about a U.S. plot to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has drawn widespread attention after the film's release was linked to a massive cyber attack on its financial backer, Sony Pictures Entertainment. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from Seoul the film “The Interview” is testing the young leader’s reaction to ridicule.

Russian Authorities Order Tycoon Freed From House Arrest

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Russian authorities have released billionaire Vladimir Yevtushenkov from house arrest less than two months after a controversial ruling to nationalize his stake in an oil company.

Opponent calls for Putin's exit as Russia slides into crisis

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MOSCOW (Reuters) - A prominent opponent has warned Vladimir Putin his days in power are numbered, as Russia awaits the president's response to the dramatic decline of the rouble.

WorldViews: 6 graphs that explain Cuba

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President Obama has announced an effort to normalize relations with Cuba more than half a century after the historic rift between the two countries. Under the new plan, the United States plans to ease travel and trade restrictions and reopen its embassy in Havana. Read the full story.Read full article >>

Mocking Kim Jong Un, a Serious Matter 

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A new Hollywood comedy about a U.S. plot to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has drawn widespread attention after the film's release was linked to a massive cyber attack on its financial.
From: VOAvideo
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Time: 02:39More in News & Politics

Ruble Volatile Despite Intervention

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The ruble strengthened in afternoon trading after Russia’s central bank announced measures to shore up the country’s banks following another volatile day for the currency.

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Sony Cancels Kim Jong-Un Movie After Threats

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Sony Pictures has cancelled the release of the controversial film The Interview, which depicts an assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un.

Letter From China: Reporters in China Say Media Freeze Is Intensifying 

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Progress on visa renewals for journalists obscures what many correspondents say is a mounting hostility toward Western media outlets operating in China.

Hamas removed from EU terrorist list on technicality - Ynetnews

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Hamas removed from EU terrorist list on technicality
European Union General Court annuls decision to keep Hamas on list of terrorist organizations, but temporarily maintained measures against it for three months or until an appeal was closed. Reuters, AP ...

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Obama Starts Dismantling Cuba Embargo

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President Obama has announced a major shift in U.S. policy toward Cuba and begun dismantling the decades-old embargo against the communist island nation. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Detente between US and Cuba triggers mixed reactions

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Long-time Cuban exiles in Miami, Florida, reacted with disbelief to the news that the US and Cuba would normalize their relationship. Some call it a "betrayal" by the Obama administration....
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UPDATE 1-After first big step, US faces long path to forge ties to Cuba - Reuters

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UPDATE 1-After first big step, US faces long path to forge ties to Cuba
(Adds quotes from Obama, Rubio; details). By Alistair Bell. WASHINGTON Dec 17 (Reuters) - The renewal of full diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba could be the start of a long thaw in decades of animosity but the path is full of obstacles, ...
What just happened between the US and Cuba?
Ban Ki-moon hails decision by US, Cuba to normalize relationsUN News Centre
1st LD Writethru: U.S., Cuba restoring ties "very important step:" UN chiefGlobalPost
all 74 news articles »
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Obama Starts Dismantling Cuba Embargo - YouTube

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Published on Dec 17, 2014
President Obama has announced a major shift in U.S. policy toward Cuba and begun dismantling the decades-old embargo against the communist island nation. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Obama Starts Dismantling Cuba Embargo 

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President Obama has announced a major shift in U.S. policy toward Cuba and begun dismantling the decades-old embargo against the communist island nation. VOA White House correspondent Luis.
From: VOAvideo
Views: 0
Time: 01:51More in News & Politics

World Briefing: Foul Play Ruled Out in German Politician’s Death 

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Andreas Schockenhoff, a well-known critic of Russia, died last weekend of heart failure or heat exposure, an autopsy showed.

World Briefing: German Soldiers May Help Train Forces in Iraq

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Germany’s cabinet approved a plan for 100 soldiers to help train Kurdish pesh merga forces.

US-Cuba rapprochement exposes Venezuela's Maduro - Reuters

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Latin American Herald Tribune

US-Cuba rapprochement exposes Venezuela's Maduro
CARACAS Dec 17 (Reuters) - Even as Cuba and the United States try to bury 50 years of enmity, Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro has seemed to be going in the other direction, vilifying "insolent Yankees" at rallies and threatening to cut ties completely.
US-Cuba Deal Welcomed in Latin AmericaWall Street Journal
Cuba Move Unites US Enemies With Latin American AlliesBusinessweek 
Here's the giant loser from today's US-Cuba dealQuartz

all 58 news articles »

North Koreans Toil for Little Pay Overseas

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In the heat of Qatar, nearly 3,000 North Koreans labor on construction sites, under harsh conditions. The laborers and local construction managers tell VOA that they work very long hours and that most of their pay is confiscated by North Korean officials. One North Korean laborer said that only those with no money at all will agree to work overseas.   “Many go overseas because they have no capital," he said. "It is hard to live in the homeland without capital. To get a...

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Dalai Lama says his role should cease after his death but Tibetans, not China ... - ABC Online

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ABC Online

Dalai Lama says his role should cease after his death but Tibetans, not China ...
ABC Online
The Dalai Lama says he thinks his traditional religious role should cease with his death rather than a "stupid" successor replace him and disgrace himself. Tibet's exiled spiritual leader told the BBC in an interview on Wednesday the Tibetan people should ...

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Sen. Jeff Sessions drops bid for budget chairmanship, will lead welfare reform ... -

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Sen. Jeff Sessions drops bid for budget chairmanship, will lead welfare reform ...
Sen. Jeff Sessions is stepping aside in his bid to become the next chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, clearing the way for Wyoming's Mike Enzi to take the top post. In a statement released Wednesday, Sessions, R-AL, current ranking member of the ...

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Economic Fears May Push Russia Into Ukraine Deal - New York Times

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The Nation

Economic Fears May Push Russia Into Ukraine Deal
New York Times
BERLIN — The turmoil in the Russian economy appears to be encouraging Moscow to seek compromise in the crisis over Ukraine, although President Vladimir V. Putin has proved so erratic in past months that Western leaders are wary of proclaiming ...
As Investors Brace for Ruble's Fallout, Focus Is on Putin's Next MoveWall Street Journal
Bank of Russia acts to halt rouble routFinancial Times
Russians have been rushing to spend as the ruble has fallenQuartz
Businessweek -CNBC -ABC Online
all 4,294 news articles »

U.S. Links North Korea to Sony Hacking

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American intelligence officials have concluded that the government of Kim Jong-un was “centrally involved” in the attacks on the film company’s computers.

Cold War-Style Spy Swap Key To US-Cuba Deal

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A Cuban who provided intelligence on agents in the US government is exchanged for three jailed members of Cuba's Wasp Network.

Cuba has always been a fantasy. Can it ever be something close to normal? 

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US foreign policy may no longer be frozen in time, but on both shores of this failed experiment, the healing has just begun
Many years ago, I stumbled across an old book of photographs titled Havana 1933, by Walker Evans. The images were a revelation to me, a stark contrast to the sanitized tales of pre-revolutionary Cuba I’d heard from my parents. In their Cuba, there was no poverty, or repression, no fear, no racism. Why, there was barely a dictatorship! Never had I heard anything about what I saw documented so unsparingly in Evan’s photographs: families sleeping in the streets, their clothes in shreds, straw hats torn and unprotecting of the sun, guajiros looking for work on the doorsteps of Havana’s indifferent mansions.
Continue reading...
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Putin Orders Feared “Samson Defense” To Collapse US-EU Economies 

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A chilling report published today by the Ministry of Economic Development (MED) is warning of potentially “catastrophic unknown consequences” relating to President Putin’s issuance to the Central Bank of Russia (CBR) of orders to initiate what is commonly known within the Kremlin as the “Samson Defense” designed to crash the Russian ruble, while at the same time insuring the economic collapse of both the United States and European Union.
The CBR’s “Samson Defense” is a Russian monetary strategy designed to economically mirror Israel’s feared “Samson Option” deterrence strategy of massive retaliation with nuclear weapons as a “last resort” if military attacks threaten its existence.
In Putin’s action against the US-EU, this report says, the CBR’s stunning move earlier today in raising the interest rate to 17% from 10.5% has had its desired consequence as the ruble plunged more than 20% and to date and has now lost about 57% of its value versus the US dollar since the start of the year, which exceeds the 36% plunge related to the 2008 global economic crisis.
Most importantly to note about this currency plunge, however, this report notes, are that Russia’s fiscal domestic accounts are denominated in depreciating rubles and its oil exports are invoiced in an appreciating US dollar, meaning that the fiscal blow from lower oil prices will be cushioned by a weak ruble, and was a strategy that Putin warned about earlier when he stated that the Federation wasbraced for a “catastrophic” slump in oil prices.
Equally as important to note, MED analysts in this report say, the CBR agreed to lend money this week against 625 billion rubles (over $10 billion) of bonds freshly printed by oil giant Rosneft allowing it to hoard its export dollars and meet a $10 billion loan repayment later this month, and another $4 billion in February.
As to how catastrophically low oil prices can fall, this report continues, it notes that OPEC has already stated that they are willing to push prices as low as $40 a barrel in their bid to take on Russia and US shale, a stance which began this past September when the Obama regime reached a secret deal with Saudi Arabia in order to flood the world with oil to collapse the Russian economy, but which has now backfired on them as the Saudis seek to bankrupt US shale producers too.
With 15% of US shale gas producers are already losing money because of the Obama regimes secret deal with Saudi Arabia, this report warns, up to half of all of Americas shale operations will face financial ruin if oil prices slip below $55 a barrel leaving millions without jobs in an already collapsing economy.
To the ability of the Federation withstanding a “Samson Defense” economic war against the US and EU, this report says, it should be noted that the current debt of the US stands at a staggering $18 trillion [an amount so large it is now mathematically impossible to ever pay back] while the EU is, likewise, at a equally staggering amount of €12 trillion ($15 trillion).
Compared to the combined US-EU debt of $30 trillion, this report notes, Russia has only $678 billion in foreign debt, has very little outstanding debt and its public debt to gross domestic product ratio is 10% – an excellent figure compared to the EU’s dismal average ratio of 90.9 and the US’s 71.8%.
Likewise to note, MED analysts in this report say, is that while Russia’s debt to GDP is roughly 14%, the EU currently stands at 90.9%, the US at 80.2%, and Japan’s at 227%, meaning, simply, that the Federation can withstand any economic hardship the Western alliance puts against it.
Also, and as independent analysts confirm, Moscow‘s coffers are well-filled, giving Russia the durability to weather a double external shock – tanking oil prices and Western sanctions.
The Finance Ministry controls two sovereign wealth funds, which contained some $172 billion as of December. The money, held in foreign currency, has been accumulated during the past 15 years of high oil and gas revenues and has been earmarked as a piggy bank, primarily for the pension system.
Additionally, the CBR’s overall foreign currency reserves stood at a healthy $416.2 billion dollars in early December.
And most critical to note about the “Samson Defense”, this report concludes, is that Russia will not cut its oil production against the headwinds of collapsing prices, and may, indeed, increase its amount as the plunging ruble, combined with a rising US dollar, actually makes Federation oil the most affordable in the world.
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· · · ·

The US and Cuba are now on equal terms for the first time in history 

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For most of the half-century since the US broke off diplomatic relations, Washington fought a war of economic attrition that affected millions
The decision to restore normal diplomatic relations offers the opportunity for the US and Cuba to engage on genuinely equal terms for the first time in their long and troubled history.
Since Thomas Jefferson offered to buy the island from the Spanish in 1809, it has been an lopsided relationship that has shaped both countries, but inevitably the effect on Cubans has been far greater. The automobiles famously still on the road a half-century after the US embargo stopped the shipment of new cars and parts are testament to Cubans’ enforced flair for improvisation in an economy defined by scarcity.
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A New Beginning With Cuba

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Following months of secret negotiations with the Cuban government, President Obama on Wednesday announced sweeping changes to normalize relations with Havana, a bold move that ends one of the most misguided chapters in American foreign policy.
The administration’s decision to restore full diplomatic relations, take steps to remove Cuba from the State Department list of countries that sponsor terrorism and roll back restrictions on travel and trade is a change in direction that has been strongly supported by this page. The White House is ushering in a transformational era for millions of Cubans who have suffered as a result of more than 50 years of hostility between the two nations.
Mr. Obama could have taken modest, gradual steps toward a thaw. Instead, he has courageously gone as far as he can, within the constraints of an outmoded 1996 law that imposes stiff sanctions on Cuba in the pursuit of regime change.
“These 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked,” Mr. Obama said. “It’s time for a new approach.”
Cuba’s President, Raúl Castro, deserves credit for his pragmatism. While Cuba remains a repressive police state with a failed economy, since 2008, under his leadership, the country has begun a process of economic reforms that have empowered ordinary Cubans and lifted travel restrictions the government cruelly imposed on its citizens.
“We must learn the art of coexisting with our differences in a civilized manner,” he said on Wednesday.
The changes the Obama administration announced have the potential to empower Cuba’s growing entrepreneurial class by permitting commercial and financial transactions with the United States. The White House also intends to make it easier for American technology companies to upgrade the island’s primitive Internet systems, a step that could go a long way toward strengthening civil society. Given Cuba’s complicated history with the United States, it’s all but certain that this new chapter will include suspicion and backsliding. Leaders in both countries must make every effort to deal with those in a rational, constructive way.
The United States has been right to press for greater personal freedoms and democratic change. But its punitive approach has been overwhelmingly counterproductive. Going forward, Washington’s support for Cuba’s civil society and dissidents is likely to become more effective, in good part because other governments in the Western Hemisphere will no longer be able to treat Cuba as a victim of Washington’s pointlessly harsh policy.
As part of the negotiations, the Cuban government released an unnamed American intelligence agent who had been imprisoned for nearly 20 years and Alan Gross, an elderly American subcontractor who had been imprisoned in Havana since 2009. The United States, meanwhile, released three Cuban spies who have served more than 13 years in prison. The prisoner swap paved the way for a policy overhaul that could become Mr. Obama’s top foreign policy legacy.
Administration officials recognize that Congress is unlikely to take complementary steps toward a healthier relationship with Cuba anytime soon. But this move will inevitably inform the debate about the merits of engagement. In all likelihood, history will prove Mr. Obama right.
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Russia’s Economic Turmoil Could Push Putin to Close Deal on Ukraine

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BERLIN — The turmoil in the Russian economy appears to be encouraging Moscow to seek compromise in the crisis over Ukraine, although President Vladimir V. Putin has proved so erratic in past months that Western leaders are wary of proclaiming progress, officials and analysts said Wednesday.
On Sunday and again on Tuesday night — after days in which the ruble gyrated wildly, raising the possibility of a broader financial crisis that could saddle Mr. Putin with deeper economic and political problems — the Russian president spoke by phone with his Ukrainian, German and French counterparts. Statements released afterward in all four capitals talked of moving quickly to cement a cease-fire broadly observed since last week in eastern Ukraine.
Mr. Putin may make his intentions clearer at his annual news conference on Thursday. European leaders will meet later Thursday and Friday in Brussels amid growing indications that pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainians could meet Sunday or Monday for talks under European auspices.
One wild card is the threat by the United States to move ahead with a new round of sanctions againstRussiaThe White House said Tuesday that President Obama, despite misgivings about falling out of step with European allies and complicating the talks, would sign newly passed legislation expanding the financial sanctions and providing additional military aid to Ukraine.
While leaving the United States at risk of becoming out of step with Europe, which is not seeking tighter sanctions, the new legislation could also help pressure Mr. Putin to seal a deal on Ukraine now that would relieve some of the pressure on the Russian economy.
On Tuesday, Secretary of State John Kerry said that sanctions “could be lifted in a matter of weeks or days” depending on how Mr. Putin acts.
In Moscow, some analysts said the Kremlin appeared to have started moving toward a more flexible position on Ukraine before the ruble’s nose dive, but the currency crisis of the past few days made progress imperative.
“It seems like the new economic situation will inevitably force Russia to focus on the domestic crisis,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs.
At the same time, Mr. Lukyanov said, Mr. Putin is unlikely to abandon the separatists in eastern Ukraine.
“Putin’s credibility might be seriously damaged by this economic crisis,” he said. “If in reaction he begins to clearly give up on Ukraine, that will be detrimental to his position and he cannot afford it.”
For some days, Russia experts in financial markets have suggested that Mr. Putin might agree to measures that essentially would freeze the conflict in eastern Ukraine, allowing aid into the region and halting hostilities, at least for the winter. That arrangement would still allow Mr. Putin to claim he was preventing Ukraine from any further move toward the European Union or NATO membership, said Christopher Granville, a Russia expert and managing director of Trusted Sources, an emerging markets research firm in London.
There is a gap between what Europe and Germany, its No. 1 economy, might want, and voices in Congress in Washington who “behold with satisfaction Putin going down in flames,” Mr. Granville said.
Europeans have to share a continent with Russia, and fear turmoil in the East, he added, noting that severe upheaval in Russia could also “greatly increase the probability of a terminal meltdown in Ukraine” and could be counterproductive for Western supporters of the Ukrainian government in Kiev.
Indeed, Ukraine’s currency has also plunged, and the country launched an urgent appeal for more funds last week in Brussels.
Complicating the picture is whether pro-Russian separatists would attend cease-fire talks and whether Mr. Putin would actually deliver on any promises made there.
Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s new foreign affairs chief, reported “some limited hope” for a settlement to the conflict in eastern Ukraine based on a repeatedly violated truce agreement reached in September by pro-Russian separatists, Russia and Ukraine in the Belarus capital, Minsk.
“We have gone through this too many times to fall into illusions about turning points. I would not define any turning point at the moment but still there is a small reason for hope on which we can build,” she said at a news conference on Monday.
On a visit to Kiev on Tuesday, Ms. Mogherini pledged full European support for a new Ukrainian government, and said the European Union “will stand firmly at your side to make sure the Minsk protocol is implemented firmly in all parts.”
Michael Thumann, a senior foreign correspondent and Russia expert for the German weekly Die Zeit, said he was skeptical about the prospects for a lasting agreement, given Mr. Putin’s need to appeal to different domestic constituencies at home and his behavior in the past year.
“Putin could try to solve economic problems with a new heroic, patriotic deed,” he said. “I am not completely pessimistic, but at the moment I just don’t believe in the durability of his actions.”
This kind of instability, he said, is anathema to German business. “German business is looking at this with great concern,” he said. “It all means nothing good for the Russian market in the near future.”
“A destabilization of Russia is in nobody’s interest,” said Eckhard Cordes, chairman of the Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations, a group traditionally pro-business with the Kremlin. “This would also have an impact on us.”
On Wednesday, spokesmen for the German government were careful not to link the turmoil in Russia to the sanctions passed on Ukraine.
“The crisis over the Russian currency and economics has various causes — not even primarily the sanctions,” said Steffen Seibert, a German government spokesman.
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· · · ·

Russia’s Economic Turmoil Could Push Putin to Close Deal on Ukraine 

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Officials and analysts say that the ruble’s nose dive has put pressure on the Russian president to take a more flexible position on Ukraine.

Obama announces 'new chapter' in US-Cuba ties - YouTube

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Published on Dec 17, 2014
US President Barack Obama said Wednesday a "new chapter" had been opened in Washington's ties with Cuba, saying it was time to end an "outdated approach" that had failed to move relations forward. Duration: 00:42
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U.S., Cuba to restore ties after 50 years of hostility

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HAVANA/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States will restore diplomatic relations it severed withCuba more than 50 years ago, a major policy shift ending decades of hostile ties with the communist-ruled island, President Barack Obama said on Wednesday.
Announcing the end of what he called a "rigid" policy of isolation of Cuba that had been ineffective, Obama said the United States would move toward normal ties and would open an embassy in Cuba.
Obama discussed the changes with Cuban President Raul Castro on Tuesday in a nearly hour-long telephone call. Castro spoke in Cuba as Obama made his announcement on a policy shift made possible by the release of American Alan Gross, 65, who had been imprisoned in Cuba for five years.
Cuba is also releasing an intelligence agent who spied for the United States and was held for nearly 20 years, and the United States in return freed three Cuban intelligence agents held in the United States.
Gross' case had been a block to any movement by Washington toward improved ties. Obama said Pope Francis had played an active role in pressing for his release. Francis congratulated both countries on their forging of diplomatic ties.
The policy shift will mean a relaxation in some aspects of commerce and transportation between the United States and Cuba, but it does not mean an end to the longstanding trade embargo, which needs congressional approval that Obama may face a struggle getting.
And while travel restrictions that currently make it hard for most Americans to visit will be eased, the door will not yet be open for broad U.S. tourism on the Caribbean island.
Cuba and the United States have been ideological foes since soon after the 1959 revolution that brought Raul Castro's older brother, Fidel Castro, to power.
They have not had diplomatic relations since 1961 and the United States has maintained its trade embargo on the island, 90 miles (140 km) south of Florida, for more than 50 years. Obama said he would ask Congress to lift the embargo.
Obama will likely face resistance on this.
Although a growing number of U.S. lawmakers favor more normal ties with Cuba, those lawmakers are still mostly Democrats, and after big midterm election gains in November, Republicans will control both houses of Congress in the new year.
Senator Marco Rubio, a Cuban American Republican, said he would use his role as incoming chairman of a key Senate Foreign Relations Committee to try to block the plan and was committed to doing all he could to "unravel" it.
News of the changes rippled fast through the 1.5 million-strong Cuban American community in the United States, hailed by some who are keen to see closer ties with the island and condemned by others who have opposed any warming while either of the Castro brothers is in power.
"It's amazing," said Hugo Cancio, who arrived in Miami in the 1980 Mariel boatlift and runs a magazine with offices in Miami and Havana. "This is a new beginning, a dream come true for the 11.2 million Cubans in Cuba, and I think it will provoke a change of mentality here too in this community."
Flashpoints in U.S.-Cuba hostilities included the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. Washington's policy has survived the demise of Soviet communism and the end of the Cold War as the United States pushes for democratic reform in Cuba.
In his remarks, Obama said Cuba still needed to make changes. He said Havana needed to make economic reforms and improve human rights.
Cuba arrested Gross on Dec. 3, 2009, and sentenced him to 15 years in prison for importing banned technology and trying to establish clandestine Internet service for Cuban Jews. Gross had been working as a subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
The payoff for Obama was the release of Gross, whose lawyer and family have described him as mentally vanquished, gaunt, hobbling and missing five teeth.
Gross's case raised alarm about USAID's practice of hiring private citizens to carry out secretive assignments in hostile places. Cuba considers USAID another instrument of continual U.S. harassment dating back to Cuba's 1959 revolution.
Fidel Castro retired in 2008, handing power to his brother, who has carried out some economic reforms but maintained a one-party political system.
The three Cuban intelligence agents, jailed since 1998, are
Gerardo Hernandez, 49, Antonio Guerrero, 56, and Ramon Labañino, 51. Two others had been released before on completing their sentences - Rene Gonzalez, 58, and Fernando Gonzalez, 51. The three arrived in Cuba on Wednesday, Castro said.
For Obama, the abrupt shift in Cuba policy adds a foreign policy milestone to his presidential legacy as he enters the last two years of his eight years in office. He will be able to say he turned the page from a policy that Democratic President John Kennedy began in 1961.
At home, Obama’s move may bolster Democratic hopes of retaining the support of Latino voters as the party looks ahead to the presidential election in 2016. Republican candidates seeking to carve out some of the Latino vote may have difficulty arguing against the Cuba move.
Despite their animosity, the two countries have long been engaged on a host of issues such as immigration, drug interdiction and oil-spill mitigation.
(Additional reporting by Matt SpetalnickPatricia ZengerleRoberta Rampton and Richard Cowan; Writing by Frances Kerry; Editing by Howard Goller)
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· · · ·

Tortured by Psychologists and Doctors

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One of the most disturbing revelations in the Senate report on the Central Intelligence Agency’s interrogation program was the deep complicity of psychologists and doctors in torturing suspected terrorists. We already knew from earlier reports that health professionals had facilitated the torture by advising the interrogators when their brutal tactics might inadvertently kill a prisoner.
The ghastly new revelation is that two psychologists, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, who devised a list of coercive techniques to be used in questioning prisoners also personally conducted interrogations in which they tortured some C.I.A. detainees. They earned tens of millions of dollars under contracts for those services.
The report also cites other health professionals who participated, including unidentified C.I.A. medical officers or doctors who cleared prisoners for interrogation and played a central role in deciding whether to continue or adjust procedures when a prisoner developed severe medical problems.
The report was produced by Democratic staff members of the Senate Intelligence Committee who examined more than six million pages of internal C.I.A. documents. Although Republican critics are complaining that the report is biased, it is by far the most thorough inquiry into the interrogation program yet conducted.
The supposedly scientific underpinnings of the interrogation program turn out to be ludicrous. The two psychologists who were hired in an atmosphere of panic in the months after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, had no experience as interrogators, no specialized knowledge of Al Qaeda, no background in counterterrorism, and no relevant cultural or linguistic expertise.
They relied on the psychological theory known as “learned helplessness,” which they believed would make prisoners passive and depressed and cause them to cooperate in providing information. They and others employed a range of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” including shackling people in painful positions, keeping them awake for more than a week at a time, locking them in coffin-sized boxes and repeated waterboarding. There is no evidence — other than self-serving claims by those who authorized the interrogation program — that it provided useful intelligence.
The American Medical Association said that the participation of doctors in torture and coercive interrogation “is a violation of core ethical values.” The president of the American Psychological Association called torture “morally reprehensible” and said the application of “learned helplessness” on detainees was a “perversion of psychological science.” In response to complaints that the A.P.A.’s ethics code was modified to allow such interrogations, it has commissioned an independent reviewinto whether it colluded with the government’s use of torture.
Health care professionals who engaged in or abetted torture should have their professional licenses revoked and, depending on the degree of culpability, be prosecuted criminally. None of this seems likely for Mr. Mitchell or Mr. Jessen. (A complaint filed against Mr. Mitchell to revoke his license to practice psychology failed.) The best we can hope for is that laying bare the record will deter future unethical behavior by health professionals.
To ensure that result, Congress ought to enact legislation or the president ought to issue executive orders that explicitly prohibits all forms of torture and bars health professionals from direct involvement in interrogations. If Republicans feel the Senate report was biased, they should create a federal commission to investigate the role health professionals played in this barbaric undertaking.
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· ·

Ruble Remains Volatile as Russia Pledges to Sell Foreign Currency

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LONDON — Trading in the Russian ruble was volatile early Wednesday morning, rallying briefly on news that the Finance Ministry was ready to sell some of its foreign currency reserves, and then weakening again.
The ministry said Wednesday morning that it was prepared to sell as much as $7 billion of those reserves to support the ruble, which a senior official said was “extremely undervalued.”
We will sell “as much as we need to,” Alexei V. Moiseev, the deputy finance minister, told journalists, the Interfax news agency reported. Separately, Interfax said that the Finance Ministry had already begun selling currency reserves.
The ruble was at 68.25 to the dollar in midmorning trading. It closed at 67.50 on Tuesday, when it swung wildly to about 80 rubles to the dollar after opening the day at 64.
“It’s already been a roller coaster,” said Luis Costa, Citigroup’s head of strategy for Central and Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
Mr. Costa said the market welcomed news that there would be a meeting on Wednesday of the central bank, the Foreign Ministry and important Russian companies.
“We are seeing the level of sophistication and synchronization of efforts here to stem the ruble’s slide is gaining more traction,” he said.
Traditionally, the Russian Central Bank has managed the ruble rate. Since transitioning to a free-float model last month, the bank has sold more than $10 billion in foreign currency to support the ruble in December, including nearly $2 billion on Monday alone.
Some traders and strategists said the Finance Ministry’s announcement would have little effect. They noted that the ministry’s decision to sell foreign currency reserves was no different than the central bank’s efforts, which had done little to help the ruble.
“It’s dollars from the same source,” said one senior trader, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the news media. The central bank has sold tens of billions of dollars, he said, “and look what that has done.”
The ruble has lost about half of its value as oil prices have plummeted and as Russia has felt the increasing weight of economic sanctions. On Monday, the central bank drastically raised interest rates to 17 percent from 10.5 percent in an emergency bid to halt the currency’s slide. But rather than reverse the downturn, the move accelerated the panic, as the market interpreted it as an act of desperation.
On Tuesday, traders said the ruble’s weakness reflected concerns about the impact of Russian households’ selling their currency as well as the fear that the government might impose capital controls. Mr. Costa said he did not think that would happen.
“I still believe Russia is far away from capital controls,” he said. “I truly believe the authorities understand if they delve into strong capital controls, credit worthiness will be the main victim.”
Nevertheless, market participants remain on high alert. On Tuesday, MSCI, a New York-based provider of indexes, said it was closely monitoring recent economic developments in Russia. The company said it might exclude its Russia index from its MSCI Emerging Markets Index if Russian authorities were to carry out restrictive measures, such as foreign exchange controls.
Depending on developments, MSCI said it might reclassify its MSCI Russia Index as a stand-alone market or pre-emptively replace local listings with liquid depositary receipts to avoid a potential exclusion.
In a sign of how Russia’s currency volatility is starting to affect Western companies, Apple said on Tuesday that it had stopped online sales of its products in Russia because of the ruble’s tumbling valuation against other currencies like the dollar and the euro.
Some automobile dealerships in Moscow, particularly those selling luxury vehicles, halted sales, citing the currency’s instability. Managers at Major Auto, a leading dealer of imported cars, told customers they were not taking orders for BMWs, Jaguars, Land Rovers, Toyotas and others either because they had no cars left in stock or had been told not to make any more sales. Used cars were also not being sold. Several of the dealerships raised prices this month, and a manager at Major Auto’s Jaguar dealership interviewed on Tuesday said sales had increased at least 50 percent in the past month.
In Russia, the sell-off has ignited tempers. The central bank has come under criticism from politicians and even from Aleksei Ulyukayev, the finance minister, for not taking drastic and earlier measures to stem the currency’s losses. Mr. Ulyukayev said the central bank should have raised interest rates sooner.
Jenny Anderson reported from London, and Andrew Roth from Moscow. Chad Bray and Mark Scott contributed reporting from London.
Correction: December 17, 2014
An earlier version of this article misidentified the Russian ministry that was engaged in asset sales. According to Interfax, it was the Finance Ministry, not the Foreign Ministry, that had already begun the sales. The article also misidentified the types of assets that were being sold. They are currency reserves, not the ruble currency.
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Cuba Action Is Obama’s Latest Step Away From 6 Years of Caution

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WASHINGTON — President Obama is putting his most ardent Republican critics on notice: Remember what I vowed to do as a candidate in 2008? I have two years left in office, and I intend to do it all.
Mr. Obama’s decision on Wednesday to radically shift United States policy toward Cuba is the latest and most striking example of a president unleashed from the hesitancy that characterized much of his first six years in office. It follows decisions by Mr. Obama to defy Republicans on immigration,climate change policy, the regulation of the Internet and negotiations with Iran.
Gone are the cautious political calculations that consigned contentious issues to secondary status. Mr. Obama is instead pushing aggressively on his promises and ignoring his opponents in the process.
“He’s going down a checklist of thorny, longstanding problems, and he’s doing whatever he can to tackle them,” said David Axelrod, a former senior adviser. “These are things that have been tearing at us for decades and generations. My sense is his feeling is, I’m not going to leave office without doing everything I can to stop them.”
As a candidate in 2008, Mr. Obama was scorned by his Republican opponent, Senator John McCain of Arizona, for his pledge to meet with Raúl Castro, the president of Cuba, “at a time and place of my choosing.” Mr. Obama said at the time that if Cuba took steps toward democracy and released all political prisoners “we will take steps to begin normalizing relations.”
For six years, Mr. Obama made little progress on an issue fraught with political passions and uncertainty, especially in Florida, an important swing state. The only evidence of any change included a brief handshake with Mr. Castro at Nelson Mandela’s funeral last year and some minor changes to the Cuba embargo, allowing Cuban-Americans to send more money home.
Now, with no election on the horizon and his legacy in mind, Mr. Obama has decided to go big on one of America’s most vexing foreign policy issues, establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba and doing what he can without congressional action to all but end the 1960 embargo on the island nation.
“When I came into office, I promised to re-examine our Cuba policy,” Mr. Obama said in remarks to the nation on Wednesday from the Cabinet Room in the White House. “I do not believe we can keep doing the same thing for over five decades and expect a different result.”
The president’s unilateral action on Cuba fits a pattern that Mr. Obama has established in the twilight of his presidency. Frustrated by congressional inaction and Republican efforts to block legislation, the president has increasingly pushed the limits of his executive authority in domestic and international policy making.
It is a go-it-alone approach that anticipates — and largely ignores — angry responses from his critics. On Wednesday, they were out in force: Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, called the president’s move “disgraceful,” calling it “just another concession to a tyranny.” Some other Cuban-Americans were equally angry. Senator Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, said Mr. Obama had “vindicated the brutal behavior of the Cuban government.”
The president appears willing to weather such criticism. Mr. Menendez, who has been the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, will lose that post when Republicans take control next year, making him less vital as an ally in Congress. Criticism from Republicans like Mr. Rubio is seen as par for the course among White House aides, who often shrug when it arrives.
Although last month’s midterm elections were a victory for Republicans, who seized control of the Senate and added to their majority in the House, the results appear to have only accelerated the president’s use of regulatory, diplomatic and executive authority.
In 2007, Mr. Obama promised as a presidential candidate to push for an overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws, saying that “we must assert our values and reconcile our principles as a nation of immigrants and a nation of laws.”
“That is a priority I will pursue from my very first day,” he added.
Instead, the White House put off consideration of immigration legislation, eventually making a push after Mr. Obama was re-elected in 2012. It was not until last month that Mr. Obama decided to act on his own, taking actions that will allow as many as five million undocumented people to work in the country legally without the threat of deportation.
The president has also recently stepped up his actions to combat climate change after failing to win congressional support for cap-and-trade legislation early in his presidency. This year, he negotiated a climate agreement with China, and he is pushing ahead with tough new regulations on coal-fired power plants.
His decision to push for negotiations with Iran in an attempt to limit Tehran’s nuclear capabilities — over the strong objections of some conservatives — came years after Mr. Obama promised such engagement during the 2008 presidential campaign.
If the president’s critics thought he might have decided to abandon some of his early campaign promises, Mr. Obama seems intent on proving them wrong.
“When we got there, we had an epic economic crisis and two wars to deal with,” Mr. Axelrod said. “It wasn’t as if he had the bandwidth or free rein to pursue every one of the issues he felt were important.”
Like the Cuba decision, Mr. Obama’s actions on immigration, Iran and climate change have generated rancorous protest from critics. In the past, the reaction might have been enough to make the president and his top aides hold back.
But Mr. Axelrod said the president seemed determined not to let that happen.
“Either you buy into this tangled pathology of Washington and allow yourself to get maneuvered into inaction, or you resolve that you’re going to use the authority that you have,” Mr. Axelrod said of the president. “He’s plainly going to use that.”
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Moscow’s Anti-American ‘Cultural Komintern’ Will Trump US Soft Power, Russian Analyst Says

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Paul Goble

            Stripped of its scholarly verbiage, the Russian commentator says, Nye’s ideas about American soft power are rooted in the idea that “even if you don’t like Bush or Obama because they are bombing someone, you will not cease eating at McDonalds, listening to Lady Gaga or watching Hollywood trash on Friday nights at your local movie theater.”

            According to Nye, that will maintain American power until and unless there is another competing center of attraction which can offer the same thing, Semin says. But there is “an Achilles’ heel” to such an argument, and it is one that Russia now can and must exploit as its competition with the West intensifies.

            As American culture spreads, he continues, anger at American culture spreads as well, a classic example of Newton’s law that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Indeed, Semin insists, “the outlines of a new cultural-anti-colonial movement” is taking shape, one that resembles “the cultural liberation revolutions of the 1940s through the 1960s,” revolutions that wouldn’t have happened “without the assistance of the USSR.”

            Russia’s “soft power” now is not as Nye imagines it but rather based on the antagonism many around the world now feel toward American “soft power.”  In short, it is “judo-like,” with Russia achieving what it wants on the basis of how people view America.

            “The world will be united not so much by love for Russia but by hatred of America,” Semin says, because “Russia is the only force on the planet which can cast doubt on American force. There are no other such forces, and in the event of the collapse of Russia, perhaps there never will be any.”

            That is the basis of Russian “exceptionalism,” Semin continues, and it is the basis of Russian attractiveness to so many. It isn’t the talents of Anna Netrebko which attract people but the fact that she isn’t afraid to help Donetsk. And it isn’t that Valery Gergiyev is “a great musician but that [he] performs in the ruins of Tskhinval.”

            To draw on, inspire and organize this force, he argues, Russia needs “a new version of the Komintern, a cultural Komintern, which will be just as much a nightmare for the West as was its predecessor.” 

            In 1943, he calls, Stalin agreed to disband the Komintern “in exchange for the Second Front.”  Restoring it now “on an oligarchic foundation is impossible” as the failures of the Zurabovs and Abramoviches in Ukraine show.  “But we are now involved in a fight in which our country must either lose or sooner or later shift to a different foundation.”

            And Russians are “changing,” Semin says. “And a new Komintern will come into existence.” Those in the West who think their soft power can withstand it, should be warned and “prepare” for the struggle of their lives.
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Kerry, Lavrov Meet Again on Ukraine Conflict

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met again Sunday to discuss Ukraine, just days after U.S. lawmakers voted in support of providing military aid for Ukrainian forces.
The two diplomats met for several hours in Rome.
No details of their talks have been released. But a State Department official says Kerry repeated the importance of the September cease-fire and de-escalating the situation on the ground.
The truce has been consistently broken almost from the moment it was signed. An unsteady new cease-fire took effect last week.
Russia has reacted angrily to U.S. congressional approval Friday of a bill to send up to $350 million in military aid, including possibly lethal aid, to Ukrainian forces fighting Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
The legislation, known as “Ukraine Freedom Support Act of 2014,” also calls for expanded sanctions against Russia for its role in the conflict in Ukraine.
President Obama, who wants to avoid getting drawn into a war between Russia and Ukraine, has yet to sign the measure.
The U.S. State Department says there are no plans to send weapons to Ukraine. It has said the aid would be limited to such non-lethal military equipment as body armor and communications equipment.
Kerry and Lavrov also talked about tensions between Israel and the Palestinians, including proposals at the United Nations for Palestinian statehood.
Russia's official Tass news agency said Lavrov spoke of the importance of taking urgent steps to keep the situation in the Middle East from deteriorating even further.