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Obama set to visit Cuba- first in 90 years by a US President

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President Obama is all set to visit Cuba next month on March 21.

VOA reports: “Barack Obama is set to become the first sitting American president to visit Cuba in nearly 90 years. He and first lady Michelle Obama will travel to the island nation March 21 to build on what the White House says is progress in the normalisation of U.S.-Cuba ties.”

The USA had lifted the embargo on this communist nation a few months back, paving the way to the possibility of bilateral talks and commerce and diplomatic engagements.

However, there is a mixed response to Obama’s visit. Cuba is still a thoroughly communist country, once iron ruled by Fidel Castro, now by his brother Raul Castro. Its economy is a closed one, and the people do not enjoy the freedom of speech and democracy. Poverty, unemployment rule the roost.

IANS reports: But critics in the Republican Party and among the Cuban-American community have decried the move, saying the Obama administration would give Cuba what they called undeserved recognition and would get nothing in return.

In an online post after the trip’s announcement, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes wrote: “There is much more that can be done — by the US and by the Cuban government — to advance this opening in ways that will be good for Cubans, and good for the United States. That is why President Obama is travelling to Cuba.”

But many Republicans continue to view Cuba in an unfavourable light. Two of the biggest critics of Obama’s move are Republican presidential hopefuls Senator Ted Cruz and Senator Marco Rubio.

Experts said both of them have a shot at clinching the Republican nomination for the 2016 race to the White House.

Both senators, sons of Cuban immigrants, hold opinions that reflect a long-standing argument among the Cuban-American community — namely, Washington should not open up to full relations with Havana till certain stipulations are met on issues such as human rights.

In a Wednesday speech on his campaign trail, Rubio said Cuba is “anti-American”, reflecting the opinions of a large chunk of the Cuban-American community. Cruz has also slammed Obama’s Cuba policy as a kind of “weakness and appeasement”.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, a Republican, also criticised Obama’s visit, alleging on Thursday that “Cuban workers continue to be exploited”.

The US-based experts are split over whether re-establishing US-Cuban ties is a positive move.

Ana Rosa Quintana, Heritage Foundation’s Latin America analyst, said Cuba has made no concessions whatsoever to the US, reflecting a common argument that the island nation has given the US nothing in exchange for re-established ties with Washington.

She added that re-establishment of relations between the two countries without pre-conditions sends out wrong messages.

Although official ties have once again been established, it remains doubtful that the US trade embargo will be fully lifted anytime soon.

The embargo has been in effect since 1962 amid the Cold War, as the US worried that Cuba would be allied with the Soviet Union in its back yard.

In 1996, the embargo was codified into US law and put under Congressional control, with only the Congress having the full power to reverse it.

Though Obama has chipped away at some stipulations within the embargo, most of the sanctions still exist. It is unlikely that the Republican-led Congress will overturn the embargo.

The US Congress has been unwilling to work with Obama on lifting the embargo, according to Quintana.

“(Obama) is weakening the embargo. He says you know what, I disagree with it, I’m going to see what I can do to undermine it,” she said.

Brookings Institution’s senior fellow Darrell West said Obama wants to push along the relationship with Cuba so the next president can’t roll back his rapprochement.

“His goal is to open up trade and investment and put the policy back on a more normalised basis. Opening up trade will boost the Cuban economy and generate more trade and commerce between the two nations,” West said.

“There is likely to be a flood of American tourists to Cuba so that will encourage the construction of new hotels and restaurants. Cuba likely will be a popular destination for many American businesses,” he added.

Video report by Voice of America’s Aru Pande and Katherine Gypson brought to you by NewsGram in collaboration with VOA.

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US Military Planes Deliver Aid to Venezuela-Colombia Border

The aid will be delivered to Cucuta, Colombia, where other food and medical supplies are being held.

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FILE - Demonstrators who are against the Venezuelan government chant outside of the Organization of American States during the special meeting of the Permanent Council, in Washington, April 3, 2017, to consider the recent events in Venezuela. VOA

More than 200 tons of US humanitarian aid intended for Venezuela is scheduled to begin arriving just across the border in Colombia Saturday, delivered by US military cargo planes.

The aid will be delivered to Cucuta, Colombia, where other food and medical supplies are being held.

The aid comes at the request of Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido to ease shortages of food and other essentials in economically troubled Venezuela.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has said the aid is part of Washington’s political maneuvering to get him out of office, and he has blocked off a bridge needed to bring the supplies into Venezuela.

The United States said Maduro’s election was unfair and illegitimate, and U.S. officials and scores of other nations have recognized his rival, Guaido, as the country’s interim leader.

US, Colombia, Venezuela
Sacks containing humanitarian aid are pictured at a warehouse near the Tienditas cross-border bridge between Colombia and Venezuela in Cucuta, Colombia, Feb. 14, 2019. VOA

Adding pressure

On Friday, Washington added to the political pressure on Maduro by sanctioning the head of Venezuela’s oil company as well as top intelligence officials.

Earlier Friday, Guiado’s representatives collected aid pledges from many nations at a meeting of the Organization of American States in Washington, where 25 countries promised more than $100 million in humanitarian aid to Venezuela.

“We came to ask for the solidarity of the governments of the world,” said Lester Toledo, coordinator for international help for Venezuela. “We appreciate the diplomatic gestures. We appreciate the letters and the recognition of President Guaidó. But we ask for help, to make the humanitarian aid a reality. That all donations can let us purchase medical supplies that we really need.”

Venezuela, US, Colombia
If the aid does arrive in Venezuela, organizations like the Red Cross will help distribute the supplies with “neutral and independent” conditions, Mario Villarroel, president of Venezuela’s Red Cross, said. Pixabay

Distributing the aid

U.S. Ambassador to the Organization of American States Carlos Trujillo said Guaidó has a plan.

“I believe that President Guaidó has done everything possible to make Maduro accept the humanitarian aid. Maduro has no argument, the person sitting in power doesn’t let the humanitarian aid reach his people who are dying of hunger,” Trujillo said.

Guaido said the aid will be brought into Venezuela Feb. 23.

Maduro, however, said the aid will not be brought into his nation, and he blames U.S. economic sanctions for Venezuela’s problems.

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“They’re putting pressure on Venezuela’s banks, which are in charge of purchasing and bringing the food and supplies. The White House is pressuring so that none of our bank accounts work. They have frozen billions of dollars that could otherwise buy food and medicine,” he claimed.

If the aid does arrive in Venezuela, organizations like the Red Cross will help distribute the supplies with “neutral and independent” conditions, Mario Villarroel, president of Venezuela’s Red Cross, said.

“We have the necessary experience, we know it is a very complex issue, but we will do our best to coordinate the distribution and organization of this humanitarian aid,” he said. (VOA)