CUBA BRIEF: North Korea, Zimbabwe and Mimi Whitefield’s PR efforts

The Washington Post, November 17, 2017 reports that “North Korea falls back on close ties with Cuba.” Relations between Havana and Pyongyang have been very strong for more than half a century. A big difference today is that under the Trump Administration Washington is not likely to sweep under the rug hostile actions by either regime.

According to the Post under the Obama Administration Cuba attempted to smuggle “suspected” missile technology under bags of Cuban sugar to North Korea. The “suspected” items included warplanes and other deadly equipment. Their photographs were picked up by many newspapers.

Also according to the Post, Senator Bob Menendez corruption trial ended in a hung jury, “after more than six full days of deliberation failed to produce any verdict on the 18 counts” against the former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The Post reported that “Jury member Edward Norris said 10 jurors wanted to acquit Menendez on all charges, while two held out for conviction.” Many Menendez supporters believe the prosecution, begun under the previous Administration, had something to do with the New Jersey Democrat’s willingness to challenge President Obama on Iran and Cuba policy.  

Believe it or not Mimi Whitfield in her Miami Herald article “Cuba takes to the web for ‘scientific exchange’ on acoustic attacks on U.S. diplomats” about the growing discussion between the United States and Cuba did not quote anyone representing the American side until paragraph 15 of an article that reads like a Cuban Foreign Ministry press release.

Finally, Yoani Sanchez writing in 14ymedio says that “every time that [Zimbabwe’s] Robert Mugabe was condemned by international organizations for stealing elections and eliminating critical voices, Havana was always at his side … the island’s news casts have yet to condemn the perpetrators of Robert Mugabe’s house arrest. They are waiting for a new strongman to emerge to extend to him a solicitous and complicit hand.”


The Washington Post, November 17, 2017

Amid growing isolation, North Korea falls back on close ties with Cuba

By Adam Taylor November 17 at 1:19 PM

In the midst of increasing international isolation, North Korea is sending its foreign minister to an old ally: Cuba. In a short message released Friday, North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency announced that Ri Yong Ho and his delegation departed on their journey to Havana.

The move comes after a number of North Korean trading partners announced that they would be suspending trade with North Korea. Pyongyang’s seventh-largest trading partner, Singapore, announced that it would halt its trade ties with the country Thursday. In September, the Philippines — North Korea’s fifth-largest trading partner — said it would do the same.

In purely economic terms, Cuba is probably of negligible importance to North Korea compared to these nations: Official figures show that Havana fails to crack the top 10 trading partners, and it certainly falls far behind China, North Korea’s most important economic ally.

However, at this point, Pyongyang may be hoping to shore up international partners wherever it can.

“Looking at the vast number of countries that have announced severed ties with North Korea over the past few weeks, it makes a great deal of sense for the regime to attempt to reinforce the bonds that exist in whatever ways possible,” said Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein, an associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and co-editor of North Korean Economy Watch, in an email.

Notably, the move also comes at a time of increasing tension between Cuba and the United States following the Obama administration attempt at normalization of relations with Havana from 2014 onward. “Considering that the country’s own detente with the U.S. appears to have stalled,” Katzeff Silberstein said, referring to Cuba, “North Korea might (reasonably) see some particular momentum.”

For Havana and Pyongyang, warm relations are nothing new. Cuba and North Korea came to be allies during the early days of the Cold War — Che Guevara, the Argentine Marxist revolutionary who played a key role in Cuba’s revolution, visited North Korea in 1960 and praised Kim Il Sung’s regime as a model for Cuba to follow. Even after the Cold War ended, the two nations, now both isolated internationally, kept up their ties: Cuba also remains one of the few countries in the world to not have diplomatic relations with South Korea, for example.

The two nations were willing to flout sanctions to work together economically. In July 2013, a North Korea-flagged vessel was seized by Panamanian authorities carrying suspected missile-system components hidden under bags of sugar upon its return from Cuba. A report released the following year by a United Nations panel of experts concluded that the shipment had violated sanctions placed on North Korea, although Cuban entities were not sanctioned in the aftermath despite protests from the United States.

Crucially, the thawing of ties with Washington didn’t seem to significantly damage the relationship: In December 2016, a North Korean delegation to the funeral of Cuban leader Fidel Castro emphasized that the two nations should develop their relations “in all spheres” — a comment that was echoed by Raúl Castro, according to state media reports at the time.

Since President Trump took office in January, there have been signs that the thaw with Cuba is over. Earlier this month, the Trump administration announced strict new restrictions on U.S. travel and trade with Cuba, a move that largely followed through on Trump’s campaign promise to “terminate” the Obama-era normalization with Cuba.

Any sign of warming relations between Cuba and North Korea will probably also draw the attention of the Trump administration, which has used the United States’ economic clout to push a variety of nations to stop their illicit economic relationship with Pyongyang. Although Cuba’s official economic ties with North Korea remain small, some experts have suggested that these figures should be taken with a grain of salt.

“A key element of the Trump administration’s sanctions effort is isolating North Korea,” said Anthony Ruggiero, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former U.S. Treasury Department official. “The U.S. should warn Cuba about the dangers of a relationship with North Korea.”


The Washington Post, November 16, 2017

New Jersey senator’s bribery trial ends in a hung jury

By David Porter | AP November 16 at 7:03 PM

NEWARK, N.J. — The federal bribery trial of Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez ended Thursday with the jury hopelessly deadlocked on all charges, a partial victory for him that could nevertheless leave the case hanging over his head as he gears up for re-election to a sharply divided Senate.

U.S. District Judge William Walls declared a mistrial after more than six full days of deliberations failed to produce a verdict on any of the 18 counts against the New Jersey politician or his co-defendant, a wealthy Florida eye doctor accused of buying Menendez’s influence by plying him with luxury vacations and campaign contributions.

Prosecutors would not say whether they plan to retry Menendez. But on the political front, forces were already mobilizing against him, with GOP Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell immediately calling for an ethics investigation of him. The ethics committee said Thursday it would resume an inquiry into Menendez that started in 2012 and was deferred a year later because of the criminal investigation.

Outside the courthouse, a choked-up Menendez fought back tears as he blasted federal authorities for bringing the case and thanked the jurors in the 2½-month trial “who saw through the government’s false claims and used their Jersey common sense to reject it.”

“Certain elements of the FBI and of our state cannot stand, or even worse, accept that the Latino kid from Union City and Hudson County could grow up to be a United States senator and be honest,” said the 63-year-old son of Cuban immigrants who is up for re-election next year.

Jury member Edward Norris said 10 jurors wanted to acquit Menendez on all charges, while two held out for conviction.

Norris said that after the prosecution rested, “in my gut I was like, ‘That’s it? That’s all they had?’”

Menendez was accused of selling his political influence to Dr. Salomon Melgen for vacations in the Caribbean and Paris, flights on Melgen’s jet and hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions to campaign organizations that supported the senator directly or indirectly.

In return, prosecutors said, Menendez pressured government officials on Melgen’s behalf over an $8.9 million Medicare billing dispute and a stalled contract to provide port screening equipment in the Dominican Republic, and also helped obtain U.S. visas for the 63-year-old doctor’s girlfriends.

According to prosecutors, Melgen essentially put Menendez on the payroll and made the politician his “personal senator,” available as needed.

The defense argued that the gifts were not bribes but tokens of friendship between two men who have known each other for more than 20 years and were “like brothers.”

The jurors were instructed that they could find the men guilty even if they felt the prosecution didn’t match specific gifts to specific acts by Menendez.

Jurors needed more, according to Norris.

“I just wish there was stronger evidence right out of the gate,” the juror said. “It was a victimless crime, I think, and it was an email trial. I just didn’t see a smoking gun.”

The charges against the men included bribery, conspiracy and honest services fraud, which was the most serious count, punishable by up to 20 years in prison. The senator was also charged with making false statements in failing to report gifts from Melgen on his financial disclosure form. That is likely to be part of the ethics committee’s review.

Fred Turner, Menendez’s chief of staff, said there was “no merit to further pursuing this matter.”

“The Ethics Committee will come to no different conclusion than this jury,” Turner said.

In a statement, the U.S. Justice Department said it will consider its next step.

Menendez is expected to run for re-election next year and warned outside the courthouse: “To those who were digging my political grave so they could jump into my seat, I know who you are and I won’t forget you.”

The Republicans have a thin, 52-48 edge in the Senate as they try to push through President Donald Trump’s agenda.

The jury deliberated most of last week, then restarted midway through with an alternate after a juror was excused for a long-planned vacation. The jurors first reported on Monday that they couldn’t agree on a verdict, but the judge asked them to keep trying.

This time, the jurors said in a note that that had reviewed all of the evidence in great detail and “tried to look at this case from different viewpoints,” but they were “not willing to move away from our strong convictions.”

Melgen is already facing the possibility of a long prison sentence after being convicted in April of bilking Medicare out of as much as $105 million by performing unneeded tests and treatments.

The last sitting senator convicted of a crime was Ted Stevens of Alaska, a Republican found guilty in 2008 of concealing more than $250,000 in home renovations and other gifts. His conviction was later overturned because of prosecutorial misconduct, and he died in a 2010 plane crash.

The Menendez case was the first major federal bribery trial since the U.S. Supreme Court in 2016 threw out the conviction of Republican former Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia and narrowed the definition of bribery.

In recent months, the McDonnell ruling led judges to overturn the convictions of at least three other public officials, including a former Louisiana congressman. Menendez’s lawyers had likewise hoped to get the case against the senator dismissed, but the judge refused.

Menendez served in the House from 1993 until he was appointed to fill a Senate vacancy in 2006. He has chaired the Foreign Relations Committee and was a major player in the unsuccessful bipartisan “Gang of Eight” effort to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws in 2013.

More recently, he drew the ire of some fellow Democrats when he opposed President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran and efforts to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba.