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Ahead of planned protests, Cuban government and dissidents wage ‘battle of ideas’

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November 10, 2021

By Dave Sherwood and Marc Frank

HAVANA (Reuters) – A war of words fought in the media and rife with espionage – double agents, wire taps and hidden cameras – is raging in Cuba ahead of protests planned for Nov. 15, setting up a showdown between the government and a dissident movement that says its most potent weapon is the cellphone.

Dissidents in September requested permission to conduct a “Civic March for Change” in mid-November, following widespread protests on the island in July. The Communist-run government denied that request last month, but protesters say they plan to go ahead anyway.

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The government has since launched a media campaign employing tactics favored by former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, leveraging the state security forces to unearth evidence it says proves the organizers are working covertly with the United States to overthrow the government, a charge the protest leaders deny.

Historians and long-time Cuba watchers say Nov. 15 will mark the first real test of the government’s Cold War-era strategies against a movement that is younger and more internet savvy than any before it.

“Clearly, they’ve reverted to their old playbook,” said Paul Hare, a former British ambassador to Cuba during the so-called “Black Spring” in 2003 when Castro jailed 75 dissidents.

But with more Cubans online than ever before, it has become more difficult for the government to dominate the airwaves, Hare said. “They’ve lost the narrative, the battle of ideas, especially with young people.”

A Cuban government spokesperson rejected that argument.

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“In Cuba, there is another youth, with many other viewpoints, the majority of which are not considered by international media,” the spokesperson said.

The stakes for Cuba are high, said historian Michael Bustamante of the University of Miami. Protesters plan to march the same day that Cuba reopens its doors to international tourism after a nearly two-year hiatus during the coronavirus pandemic. Tourist revenue is vital to Cuba’s ailing economy.

“This is the moment where the Cuban state is looking to turn the corner on what has been a very bad year… and here you have this group saying ‘no, we are choosing this specific moment to press for political change’,” said Bustamante.

“I think that explains the intensity of the state’s response.”

SPYCRAFT

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The call for protests is being led by a Facebook group called Archipielago. It said in a Nov. 3 post on the platform that it has 31,501 members, the majority of which are between 25 and 44 years old.

In a barrage of primetime television news programs on state-run channels, Cuba’s government has used spycraft to question the motives of Yunior Garcia, a Cuban playwright who is the leader of Archipielago.

In a dramatic TV segment aired last week, a cancer doctor in hospital scrubs revealed he was really ‘Agente Fernando,’ a double-agent who for 25 years infiltrated the dissident movement and accompanied Garcia to a workshop to discuss the Cuban military’s role in promoting a transition to democracy.

“Yunior Garcia Aguilera is looking for a confrontation between the armed forces and the people,” Fernando told viewers of the program.

Reuters was unable to reach Fernando, whose real name is Dr. Carlos Leonardo Vazquez, for comment.

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Garcia told Reuters he recalls Fernando at the workshop but rejected any suggestion he was seeking to violently overthrow the government.

He said he has never taken U.S. funds.

“It is very difficult for the regime to admit that it has deployed all its forces against a group of young people on phones,” Garcia said in an interview at his home in Havana. “They are scared of a public that no longer believes in them and that isn’t afraid to say so on social media.”

Garcia says Cuban authorities have thus leaned on an age-old strategy: blaming the United States.

In another segment, state-run TV aired a phone call in which Ramon Saul Sanchez, a Miami-based exile whom Cuba accuses of being behind a series of terror attacks decades ago, appears to pledge support to Garcia and asks whether he should send a flotilla of boats into waters near Cuba on the day of the planned protests. Garcia is reluctant.

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Garcia confirmed the call took place and said it was recorded without his knowledge.

Sanchez, who has denied the terror attack accusations, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Cuban government has said their evidence points to a movement that is looking to topple the leadership and is backed by outsiders.

Such subterfuge is not without precedent. A 1975 U.S. Senate committee report revealed attempts by U.S. spies to kill Castro using “devices that strain the imagination,” including exploding cigars and poison pills. As recently as 2009, the United States backed efforts to create a “Cuban Twitter” to stir unrest on the island.

Nearly half of Archipielago members reside outside of Cuba, according to figures provided by the group. Around one-quarter live in the United States.

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The U.S. State Department did not immediately reply to a request for comment. In late October, a department spokesman said the United States supports the right of Cubans to protest but that the rallies were not a “demonstration… of the desires of the United States government.”

The U.S. government has threatened sanctions amid a wave of arrests following the July 11 protests, believed to be the largest since Castro’s 1959 revolution. Cuban authorities say those arrested were guilty of crimes including public disorder, resisting arrest, and vandalism.

Many who have publicly advocated for protests say they have been harassed or put on notice by state security and government supporters in a bid to keep them off the streets next Monday.

It is not clear how many plan to march on Nov. 15, either at home or abroad, nor what the Cuban government’s response will be.

“I think the question is whether Cuba can put the July 11 genie back in the bottle or not,” said Bustamante. “November 15 will be one measure of that.”

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(Reporting by Dave Sherwood and Marc Frank, additional reporting by Nelson Acosta; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Rosalba O’Brien)

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Three missionaries released in Haiti following October kidnapping

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December 7, 2021

By Katharine Jackson

(Reuters) – Three missionaries who were kidnapped in Haiti in October have been released, the U.S. State Department and the Ohio-based missionary group that organized the group’s trip to the Caribbean nation said on Monday.

“We are thankful to God that three more hostages were released last night. Those who were released are safe and seem to be in good spirits,” Ohio-based Christian Aid Ministries said in a statement.

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U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price on Monday confirmed the release, adding that the United States is continuing to work to secure the release of the others.

Haitian National Police spokesman Garry Desrosiers said the three were released on Sunday night. He declined to give additional details, citing the security of the remaining hostages.

Sixteen Americans and one Canadian, including five children, were abducted after visiting an orphanage. The incident has highlighted Haiti’s dire kidnapping problem, which has worsened in recent months amid economic troubles and political upheaval.

Two other ministry group members were released last month.

(Reporting by Katharine Jackson in Washington; Additional reporting by Gessika Thomas in Port-au-Prince; Editing by Susan Heavey and Matthew Lewis)

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Dutch court to rule on Palestinian’s case against Israeli defence minister

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December 7, 2021

By Stephanie van den Berg

THE HAGUE (Reuters) – An appeals court in the Netherlands rules on Tuesday in a case alleging war crimes against Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz, who is blamed by a Dutch Palestinian for the loss of six relatives in an Israeli air strike on Gaza in 2014.

Ismail Ziada filed the civil case against Gantz and another former senior Israeli military official, seeking unspecified damages under Dutch universal jurisdiction rules. His case was thrown out by a lower Dutch court in January 2020.

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Universal jurisdiction allows countries to prosecute serious offences such as war crimes and torture no matter where they were committed.

But the lower court ruled that the principles of universal jurisdiction could be applied for individual criminal responsibility, but not in civil cases.

Ziada appealed, arguing that universal jurisdiction should be applied in civil cases if the alleged conduct involved serious violations of international humanitarian law. He asked the appeals judges to reverse the decision, which effectively granted Gantz immunity from prosecution.

Gantz, a career soldier turned politician, was commander-in-chief of the Israeli armed forces during a war against Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip in 2014, when the incident took place.

About 2,200 Palestinians are estimated to have been killed, up to 1,500 of them civilians, in the conflict, according to U.N. figures. Ziada said he lost relatives when his family home in Gaza was bombed during a June 2014 Israeli air strike. On the Israeli side, 67 soldiers and five civilians were killed.

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Gaza is controlled by the Palestinian Islamist Hamas movement, regarded by the West as a terrorist organization. Israel says Hamas puts civilians in harm’s way by deploying fighters and weaponry inside densely populated areas of Gaza. 

    Human rights groups have accused both sides of war crimes in the 2014 conflict. The International Criminal Court (ICC) is currently investigating alleged war crimes committed on Palestinian territory since June 2014 by both Israeli defence forces and Palestinian armed groups.

(Reporting by Stephanie van den Berg in The Hague with additional reporting by Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Editing by Anthony Deutsch and Mark Heinrich)

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Global finance system partly to blame for inequality – World Bank’s Malpass

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December 7, 2021

By Andrea Shalal

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – World Bank President David Malpass on Monday said fiscal and monetary policies were operating in “uncharted territory” since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and may be contributing to a sharp rise in global inequality and poverty.

Malpass told a roundtable hosted by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang the number of people in extreme poverty had increased by over 100 million since the beginning of the pandemic even as global spending has increased to an all-time record.

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Advanced economies have rebounded, while the poorest countries had seen only a weak rebound, or none at all, he said. This was causing “tragic reversals” in median incomes, women’s empowerment and nutrition, he said, and inflation, supply chain bottlenecks, and high energy prices were aggravating these trends.

“Part of the inequality problem is global finance itself and the unequal structure of the stimulus,” Malpass said, noting that prevailing sovereign debt, fiscal and monetary policies were adding to inequality.

Malpass said monetary policy in the advanced economies had long focused on reserve requirement ratios and limited growth in bank reserves to achieve stability in currencies and prices, an approach still used by China.

Other major central banks had switched to a “post-monetarism system” of using very large amounts of excess bank reserves to purchase and hold long-duration bonds and other assets, which he said provided price support for a highly select group of assets.

That approach, he said, excluded small businesses and developing countries, while restraining policy through regulation of liquidity and bank capitalization ratios.

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Fiscal policy was also channeling resources to narrow groups within major borrowers, while leaving others behind, and sovereign debt policies were contributing to inequality.

Malpass repeated his call for greater transparency in debt contracts and a freeze in debt payments for countries with unsustainable debt. He said creditors should move away from collateral and escrow arrangements.

“As one of the largest creditors of developing countries, China’s active participation and strong voice in debt reduction efforts are very much needed and would benefit all participants by encouraging sustainable investment and debt,” he said.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by David Gregorio)

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