Cuban President Raul Castro faces deep problems in 2017

Tue, 2016-12-27

HAVANA: Alex Romero was delighted when President Barack Obama came to Havana in March bearing the promise of a bright new future.
Like so many other Cubans, the 42-year-old state photography shop employee thrilled at the president’s vision of restored ties between the US and Cuba. Families would reunite. A flood of American business would lift the stagnant centrally planned economy, fueling its slow path toward reform. Even as Obama spoke, an 80 percent surge in US visitors was drenching state-run and private businesses with hundreds of millions of desperately needed dollars.
Nine months later, the world seen from Havana looks very different.
President Raul Castro faces what could be his toughest year since he took power in 2006. 2017 brings a possible economic recession and a US president-elect who has promised to undo Obama’s normalization unless the Cuban government makes new concessions on civil rights. Resistance to pressure from Washington is a founding principle for the Cuban communist system, making domestic concessions in exchange for continued detente a virtual impossibility.
“People expected that after Obama came there would be changes in the relationship between the US and Cuba but that we could keep the best of what we have, the benefits for the people,” Romero said. “Trump’s not going to be able to get what he wants, another type of Cuba. If the world’s number one power takes us on, 2017 is going to be really bad for us.”
Castro must manage these twin economic and diplomatic challenges during a year of transition. The 85-year-old general has promised to hand over the office in early 2018 to a successor, widely expected to be Miguel Diaz-Canel, a 56-year-old official with neither the Castro name nor revolutionary credentials. The change will occur without Castro’s older brother Fidel, the revolutionary leader whose largely unseen presence endowed the system he created with historical weight and credibility in the eyes of many Cubans before he died last month at 90.
“Even if those two events hadn’t taken place — Trump’s victory and Fidel’s death — 2017 was going to be a very difficult year for Cuba,” said Cuban economist Omar Everleny Perez, a visiting professor at Keio University in Tokyo.
Cuba publishes few credible economic statistics, but experts expect the country to end this year with gross domestic product growth of 1 percent or less. It maintained a rate close to 3 percent from 2011-2015.
One bright spot is tourism, booming since Obama and Castro’s Dec. 17, 2014, detente announcement set off a surge in overall visitor numbers, up more than 15 percent in 2015 and again this year.
“I’ve never seen as many tourists as I have this year,” said Magalys Pupo, a street-corner pastry vendor in Old Havana. “They’re everywhere and they’re the income that we need in this country.”
The slowness of macroeconomic growth despite a surge of interest in foreign investment and the greatest tourism boom in decades attests to both long-term mismanagement of the Cuban economy and the depth of the crisis in other sectors, particularly aid from Venezuelan in the form of deeply subsidized oil.
Analysts believe that as Venezuela’s Cuba-inspired socialist economy has disintegrated, exports to Cuba has dropped from 115,000 barrels daily in 2008 to 90,000 in recent years to 40,000 a day over the last few months.
Venezuela was the prime destination alongside Brazil for Cuban doctors and other professionals whose salaries go directly to the Cuban government, providing another vital source of hard currency believed to be slackening in recent years. Nickel, another of Cuba’s main exports, has seen a sharp price drop this year.
The revenue drop may be creating a vicious cycle for Cuba’s state-run industries. Experts say cutbacks in imported industrial inputs this year will lead to lower productivity in Cuba’s few domestic industries in 2017 and make zero growth or recession highly likely.
“Raul Castro’s government has a year left and it should be planning what needs to be done,” said Pavel Vidal, a Cuban economist at the Universidad Javeriana in Cali, Colombia. “Above all, it will be managing a crisis.”
The government cut back summer working hours and gas rations for state-owned vehicles and has so far avoided any sustained power outages. But a crackdown on black-market gasoline sales to taxi drivers led them to increase prices, causing drivers to raise their prices, squeezing many Cubans already struggling to get by on state salaries of about $30 a month. Many Cubans say, however, that worsening conditions could drive them to rally around the government rather than against it. “It’s going to be a tough year,” said Antenor Stevens, a 66-year-old retired public water specialist. “We’re a people who’ve suffered a lot. We’ve felt a lot of need, but there’s still a revolutionary consciousness.”

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Japan’s Abe in Hawaii to visit Pearl Harbor with Obama

Tue, 2016-12-27

HONOLULU: Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrived in Hawaii on Monday ahead of a symbolic meeting with President Barack Obama at the site of the Pearl Harbor attack.
Japanese leaders have visited Pearl Harbor before, but Abe will be the first to go to the US Arizona Memorial, the wreck where 1,177 US personnel died.
The visit comes 75 years after Japan’s December 1941 attack on the base of the US Pacific fleet, drawing America into World War II.
And it comes seven months after Obama and Abe made a joint visit to the Japanese city of Hiroshima, which was devastated by a US atomic bomb in 1945.
Before leaving Japan, Abe said he was to visit the Pearl Harbor memorial because: “We must not repeat the horror of war ever again.”
“Together with President Obama, I would like to express to the world this pledge for the future and the value of reconciliation,” he told reporters.
On December 7, 1941 a Japanese air armada descended on the Hawaiian naval base without warning, sinking much of the fleet and killing 2,400 people.
Washington had been hesitating about joining a war that had already plunged Europe into chaos, but the Japanese attack forced its hand.
The moving memorial, appearing to float above the rusting remains of the USS Arizona, attracts two million tourists, pilgrims and veterans every year.
The curved-roofed white building was put in place in the 1960s to memorialize what president Franklin Roosevelt dubbed the “day that will live in infamy.”
Inside are engraved the names of crewmen who died in the attack.
Abe is not expected to formally apologize in the name of Japan but, as Obama did at Hiroshima, will celebrate today’s friendship between the former foes.
On Monday, Abe was expected to tour other sites near the Hawaiian state capital, Honolulu, including the National Memorial Cemetery of the pacific.
Known colloquially as the Punchbowl, it is the final resting place for more than 13,000 American veterans of the war in the Pacific.
Abe will also pay tribute to the nine Japanese crew and students who drowned in February 2001 when the fishing vessel Ehime Maru collided with a US sub.

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Trump says UN just a club for people to ‘have a good time’

Tue, 2016-12-27

WEST PALM BEACH, Florida: Days after the United Nations voted to condemn Israeli settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, Donald Trump questioned its effectiveness Monday, saying it’s just a club for people to “have a good time.”
The president-elect wrote on Twitter that the UN has “such great potential,” but it has become “just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time. So sad!“
On Friday, Trump warned, “As to the UN, things will be different after Jan. 20th,” referring to the day he takes office.
The decision by the Obama administration to abstain from Friday’s UN vote brushed aside Trump’s demands that the US exercise its veto and provided a climax to years of icy relations with Israel’s leadership.
Trump told The Associated Press last December that he wanted to be “very neutral” on Israel-Palestinian issues. But his tone became decidedly more pro-Israel as the presidential campaign progressed. He has spoken disparagingly of Palestinians, saying they have been “taken over” by or are condoning militant groups.
Trump’s tweet Monday about the UN ignores much of the work that goes on in the 193-member global organization.
This year the UN Security Council has approved over 70 legally binding resolutions, including new sanctions on North Korea and measures tackling conflicts and authorizing the UN’s far-flung peacekeeping operations around the world. The General Assembly has also approved dozens of resolutions on issues, like the role of diamonds in fueling conflicts; condemned human rights abuses in Iran and North Korea; and authorized an investigation of alleged war crimes in Syria.
Trump’s criticism of the UN is by no means unique. While the organization does engage in large-scale humanitarian and peacekeeping efforts, its massive bureaucracy has long been a source of controversy. The organization has been accused by some Western governments of being inefficient and frivolous, while developing nations have said it is overly influenced by wealthier nations.
Trump tweeted later Monday, “The world was gloomy before I won — there was no hope. Now the market is up nearly 10 percent and Christmas spending is over a trillion dollars!“
Markets are up since Trump won the general election, although not quite by that much. The Standard & Poor’s 500 is up about 6 percent since Election Day, while the Dow has risen more than 8 percent.
As for holiday spending, auditing and accounting firm Deloitte projected in September that total 2016 holiday sales were expected to exceed $1 trillion, representing a 3.6 percent to 4.0 percent increase in holiday sales from November through January.
The president-elect is spending the holidays at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. He had no public schedule Monday.

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Blizzards, ice storms wreak havoc across US’ northern Plains

Associated Press
Tue, 2016-12-27

CHICAGO: Travel conditions remained hazardous as a winter storm swept across much of the northern Plains on Monday, with blowing and drifting snow forcing the closure of an airport and creating near-zero visibility on some roads.
The combination of freezing rain, snow and high winds that forced vast stretches of highways in the Dakotas to be shut down Sunday continued into Monday, and authorities issued no-travel warnings for much of North Dakota.
Meanwhile, in parts of the South, unseasonably warm temperatures was raising the risk of tornadoes and damaging thunderstorms. About 3 million people in parts of Arkansas, Missouri, Kentucky and Tennessee could see damaging winds gusts and isolated tornadoes Monday, the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma, said, but no major outbreak is expected.
Most of North Dakota was to remain under a blizzard warning through Monday afternoon or early evening, according to the National Weather Service in Bismarck. Severe whiteout conditions led to the closure of Minot International Airport, and the facility wasn’t expected to reopen until 3 a.m. Tuesday. The airports serving Fargo and Bismarck also list flight cancelations on their websites.
Winds gusting 40 mph to 50 mph associated also led to delays and cancelations at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. The storm also has caused power outages in the Dakotas and Nebraska.
The South Dakota Rural Electric Association said roughly 19,000 of its customers were without power Monday afternoon. In Nebraska, winds gusting up to 70 mph were cited for hundreds of power outages in central and eastern portions of the state Sunday, although by Monday morning, utilities reported that power had been restored to most customers.
The North Dakota Transportation Department closed most of a 240-mile stretch of Interstate 94 Sunday night, from the Montana border to Jamestown. That stretch remained closed Monday. Portions of US Highways 2, 52 and 281 were also closed because of snow, ice and “near zero visibility.” Motorists who drive past the roadblocks can be fined up to $250.
No-travel adviseries were issued for much of North Dakota, including the Williston, Dickinson, Minot, Bismarck, Jamestown, Valley City and Grand Forks areas.
Authorities in South Dakota shut down Interstate 90 from the Wyoming border to Chamberlain — about 260 miles.

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12 years after tsunami, 400 bodies unidentified in Thailand

Tue, 2016-12-27

BANGKOK: At least 400 victims of Asia’s 2004 tsunami that killed 226,000 people remain unidentified in Thailand 12 years on, police said on Monday.
The 9.15 magnitude Dec. 26 earthquake triggered a tsunami across the Indian Ocean in one of the biggest natural disasters in history.
Thailand, Indonesia, India and Sri Lanka were among the worst hit countries. Some 5,395 people were killed in Thailand, among them about 2,000 foreign tourists.
“Since the 2004 tsunami, authorities have contacted between 4,000 to 5,000 relatives to come and receive bodies. There are about 400 bodies that we cannot identify,” Anand Boonkerkaew, deputy superintendent of Takua Pa district police in Phang Nga province, told Reuters.
Thailand’s tourist high season is in full swing and in much of the area affected by the tsunami, it is business as usual. New hotels have replaced those flattened by the wall of water.
Thailand expects a record 32.4 million foreign tourists this year.
Critics have said Thailand’s tsunami warning system remains inadequate, partly because it isn’t maintained properly. The government has said it is in good order.

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Kashmir struggles to cope with tide of trauma

Tue, 2016-12-27

SRINAGAR: In a consultation room in a Kashmiri hospital, Parvaiz Ahmed struggles to find the words to describe how his interrogation at the hands of India’s security forces seven years ago has left him traumatized.
Speaking in a whisper and barely looking up from the table, Ahmed’s face is wracked with pain as he speaks of his sleepless nights, still haunted by his months in detention in 2009.
“I worry all the time that they will come back and arrest me again,” the 38-year-old tells his trauma therapist.
“We can see maybe 190 patients per day and I average around 100,” says Arshad Hussain as he explains the workload at the Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital.
“Sixty to 80 percent of them are trauma, depression or PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) patients,” he adds. The hospital is situated in the center of Srinagar, the largest city in Kashmir — an often achingly beautiful Himalayan region which is divided between India and Pakistan and claimed in full by both.
Since an uprising erupted in the Indian-controlled part of the territory in the late 1980s, rights groups estimate some 70,000 people have been killed.
While the violence is on a smaller scale these days, tensions are never far from the surface. More than 100 people have been killed since July when a prominent militant leader was shot dead by Indian forces.
A Doctors Without Borders survey last year found more than 1.5 million living in the Kashmir Valley have symptoms of depression.
Some are relatives of those killed, such as Mohammad Shafi Bhat, who lost his voice for several years after troops shot dead his 23-year-old son Bashir Ahmad Bhat in 2014, and still finds speaking a struggle.
Shafi, 50, is barely audible as he tries to recount the events surrounding Bashir’s shooting as he waters the flowers around his son’s grave in Srinagar’s ‘Martyrs’ Cemetery’.
He soon gives up and instead pulls a miniature photo portrait of his son from his wallet, his face streaming in tears.
Some of the other sufferers don’t even have a body to mourn over. For some, the last glimpse of their loved ones was as they were being hauled away for questioning. It’s a situation which further complicates the grieving process.
Rahma Begum’s son Mir Ali disappeared 13 years ago from their hamlet in the Kashmir Valley, home to around 7 million people.
For three years afterwards, she got up at dawn to search for her son, scouring the nearby forest for any clues as to his whereabouts, unable to accept he was gone for good.
“Everyone told me I had gone mad, that I was mad,” she said.
Amnesty International and other advocacy groups say around 8,000 people have permanently “disappeared” after being taken away for questioning by the security forces in Kashmir.
Their bodies are widely believed to have been buried in unmarked graves or thrown into rivers by security forces, who can operate with virtual impunity under a special act.
Then there are the likes of Ahmed who spent years bottling up the resentments bred from often brutal interrogations by security agents whom rights groups have accused of using torture.
Mudasir Hassan, who conducts therapy sessions at Srinagar’s Psychiatric Diseases Hospital, said a lot of his patients suffered from erectile dysfunction.
While Kashmir is a predominantly Muslim region, some victims have turned to alcohol as a coping mechanism, said Hassan.
“Alcohol is an issue, as is drug dependency,” he told AFP.
Big queues crowd around the tiny window of the dispensary at Hassan’s hospital from where the pharmacists dispense cocktails of pills throughout the working day.
Medics say stress levels are exacerbated by India’s large military presence, with troops and armored vehicles posted on just about every street corner in Srinagar and at checkpoints throughout the Kashmir Valley.
People living in villages regarded as militant hotbeds by the security forces are often woken in the middle of the night by the sound of army patrols or raids on houses.
“People are talking about this more… They understand now that there is something behind these symptoms,” said Hussain.
“It is not a problem with them. It is because of something outside that has happened to them.”

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Rebels blamed for killing 35 in DR Congo

Tue, 2016-12-27

GOMA: Attacks in villages and fighting between militias killed at least 35 people over the Christmas weekend in North Kivu, a majority Christian area in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
The bloodshed began in Eringeti — a town 55 kilometers (35 miles) north of the regional hub Beni, which for two years has been hit by massacres killing hundreds, many of whom were hacked to death.
Rebels from The Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) killed 22 people after storming Eringeti on Saturday, regional official Amisi Kalonda told AFP.
The toll climbed to 35 on Monday with the announcement that at least 13 Hutu civilians, mostly women and an eight-year-old girl, were killed on Sunday by a militia from the Nande ethnic group.
“The victims were all Hutu. There was an eight-year-old girl, a father and the rest were women,” said local official Alphonse Mahano.
They were killed around the village of Nyanzale, a Hutu majority community.
The Nande and some other ethnic groups regard the Hutus as outsiders because of their attachment to the majority ethnic group in neighboring Rwanda.
A string of attacks in the past year by both Hutu and Nande militia forces has deepened hatred between the communities.
Hutu farmers have also been forced to abandon land further south because of high property costs and under pressure from major landowners. Although Congolese officials have blamed the attacks on the ADF, several expert reports have suggested that other groups, including elements within the Congolese army, took part in some killings.
When the Beni massacres began in October 2014, the ADF was quickly branded the culprit by both DR Congo authorities and MONUSCO, the UN mission in DR Congo.
More than two years on, Congolese authorities and the UN have been unable to protect civilians and the ADF remains the only official explanation — with the government insisting on a terror link to the killings.
It comes as relations with the international community have soured over President Joseph Kabila’s refusal to step down despite his term ending on Dec. 20.
Separately, the Armed Forces of the DRC (FARDC) announced Monday that its troops had killed 10 soldiers from neighboring Burundi after they crossed the border last week in pursuit of rebels.
“There were 10 deaths,” Major Dieudonne Kajibwami, told AFP, following a previous statement that five bodies had been taken to Uvira, a lakeside town in the eastern South Kivu province.
Kivu is rich in natural, mainly mineral resources, such as gold, coltan and cassiterite, coveted by the telecommunications industry. Both south and north Kivu have rich agricultural and forestry resources.
North Kivu is one of the DRC’s most densely populated areas.
Tiny compared to the vast size of the country, the two provinces suffer not only because of fighting over their mineral resources but because of their proximity to an unstable border with Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda, along with Tanzania.

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Nigerian troops foil suicide attack in restive city

Tue, 2016-12-27

LAGOS: Nigerian troops on Monday foiled an attempt by two female suicide bombers to attack a cattle market in the restive city of Maiduguri, a frequent target of Boko Haram militants, the emergency service said.
Ibrahim Abdulkadir of the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) in the northeastern city said one of the bombers was killed, while the other was arrested.
“The incident happened at Kasuwar Shanu cattle market this morning. There were two suicide bombers. One accidentally blew herself up while the other was arrested by vigilant soldiers,” he said.
No one was killed in the explosion, but several people were injured.
“We have taken those wounded to the hospitals,” he said, adding that security forces have cordoned off the area.
Boko Haram’s seven-year insurgency began in Maiduguri, though it has since spread beyond Nigeria’s borders to Chad, Cameroon and Niger.
Monday’s attack comes two days after President Muhammadu Buhari claimed the military had finally routed Boko Haram from their Sambisa Forest stronghold.
The government in Abuja and the military have frequently claimed victories against Daesh affiliate but access to the epicenter of the conflict in Borno state — where Maiduguri is located — is strictly controlled.
That has made independent verification of official statements about victories virtually impossible.
And while a regional counter-insurgency has clawed back some territory, Boko Haram has responded by stepping up guerrilla tactics, ambushing troops when it can and terrorizing civilians when it cannot.
On Dec. 9, at least 45 people were killed and scores wounded when two female suicide bombers detonated their explosives in a crowded market in Madagali in Adamawa state, also in northeastern Nigeria.
Boko Haram’s insurgency has left at least 20,000 dead and forced some 2.6 million others to flee their homes.

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Typhoon causes heavy destruction in northern Philippines; 6 killed

Tue, 2016-12-27

BATANGAS, Philippines: A powerful typhoon blew out of the northern Philippines on Monday after killing at least six people and spoiling Christmas in several provinces, where more than 380,000 people abandoned celebrations at home to reach emergency shelters and other safer grounds.
Typhoon Nock-Ten cut power to five entire provinces due to toppled electric posts and trees, dimming Christmas revelries in Asia’s largest Catholic nation. More than 300 flights were delayed or re-scheduled and ferries were barred from sailing, stranding more than 12,000 holiday travelers.
Six people died from drowning or by being pinned by fallen trees, poles and a collapsed concrete wall in the provinces of Quezon and Albay, southeast of Manila, after the typhoon made landfall in Catanduanes province Sunday night, officials said.
Many military camps and outposts in Catanduanes and outlying provinces were damaged and some troops were injured, the military said.
Nock-Ten, locally known as Nina, then blew westward across mountainous and island provinces, damaging homes, uprooting trees and knocking down communications.
After weakening on landfall, the typhoon had sustained winds of up to 120 kilometers (74 miles) per hour and gusts of 180 kph (111 mph) when it blew into the South China Sea after battering the congested provinces of Batangas and Cavite, south of Manila, government forecasters said.
A cargo ship with about two dozen crewmen radioed for help as their vessel started to list off Batangas. It later ran aground and turned on its sided in Mabini town, the coast guard said.
The storm was one of the strongest to hit the Philippines since Typhoon Haiyan left more than 7,300 people dead or missing and displaced over 5 million in 2014. But officials in some provinces found it difficult to convince people to abandon their Christmas celebrations and head for the shelters before the storm hit. Some officials said they had to impose forced evacuations.
“Some residents just refused to leave their homes even when I warned them that you can face what amounts to a death penalty,” Cedric Daep, a top disaster-response official in Albay, said by phone.
Shopping malls and stores were ordered to close early on Christmas Day to encourage people to remain indoors, “but at the height of the typhoon, many cars were still being driven around and people were out walking,” Daep said. “We warned them enough, but we just can’t control their mind.”
Officials in Albay, where more than 150,000 villagers were displaced by the typhoon, declared a “state of calamity” on Sunday to allow faster disbursement of emergency funds.
About 20 typhoons and storms lash the Philippines each year. In the past 65 years, seven typhoons have struck the country on Christmas Day, according to the government’s weather agency.
Tens of thousands of villagers, forced to spend Christmas in crowded and powerless emergency shelters, started to return home Monday to deal with the damage.
“They have left the evacuation centers and we’re seeing the sun again,” Ann Ongjoco, mayor of the town of Guinobatan in Albay, one of five provinces that lost electricity, said by phone.
But she said her town, where more than 17,600 villagers fled to shelters in schools, will not be able to resume the holiday celebrations because of the post-typhoon mess. “Many houses made of light materials were destroyed,” she said.
Associated Press writer Jim Gomez in Manila contributed to this report.

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Czech president links Europe attacks to migration wave

Associated Press
Mon, 2016-12-26

PRAGUE: The Czech president has linked recent attacks in Europe to the ongoing influx of migrants escaping war-torn, poverty-stricken countries.
Milos Zeman told Czechs in his annual Christmas speech on Monday that “today almost no one doubts the connection between the migration wave and terrorist attacks.”
In order to prevent terrorist attacks on Czech soil, the president said that the Czech Republic shouldn’t take in migrants on a “so-called volunteer basis,” alluding to the European Union’s efforts to distribute migrants across the continent.
Zeman says he has nothing against helping migrants “on their territory or on neighboring territories,” or helping Italy and Greece, but “placing Muslim, hardly compatible migrants on our territory would mean creating a breeding ground for potential terrorist attacks.”

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