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US Senate Upholds Arms Sales to Bahrain, Qatar

The Senate voted 43-56 against moving the Bahrain resolution out of the Foreign Relations Committee

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FILE - Two U.S. Black Hawk helicopters participate in a media demonstration. VOA

The U.S. Senate on Thursday turned back resolutions aimed at disapproving multi-billion-dollar arms sales to Bahrain and Qatar, amid continued intensive congressional scrutiny of weapons sales to U.S. allies in the Middle East.

The Senate voted 43-56 against moving the Bahrain resolution out of the Foreign Relations Committee and bringing it to the floor for consideration by the full chamber. It also voted 42-57 against discharging the resolution pertaining to Qatar.

Sponsored by Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, the resolutions seek to block the Trump administration’s decisions, announced in May, to sell U.S. missile systems to Bahrain and attack helicopters to Qatar, each valued in the $3 billion range.

“The Middle East is a hot cauldron and continually threatening to boil over,” Paul said ahead of the votes. “I think it’s a mistake to funnel arms into these century-old conflicts.”

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The U.S. Senate on Thursday turned back resolutions aimed at disapproving multi-billion-dollar arms sales. Pixabay

Paul noted that weapons sent to the Middle East can wind up in the hands of America’s adversaries.

“In Iran to this day, they still have some U.S. weapons that are left over from the weapons the U.S. supplied the shah [U.S.-backed former Iranian leader overthrown in 1979]. In Iraq, some of the weapons we gave them to fight Iran were still there when we returned to fight Saddam Hussein. In Afghanistan, some of the weapons we gave to the Mujahideen to fight the Russians [in the 1980s] were still there when we returned to fight the Taliban [after the 9-11 attacks of 2001],” Paul said.

Last year, the Senate also defeated an effort by the Kentucky Republican to block the sale of rocket systems to Bahrain.

Bipartisan backing for such sales endured on Thursday, as even some senators who voted in favor of the discharge petitions as a procedural matter told VOA they do not support the underlying resolutions of disapproval.

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“I support the [arms] sales,” said the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Menendez of New Jersey. “On the process, I’m voting to preserve the [Senate’s] institutional rights…for at least a debate to be had over the sales, but I support the underlying sales.”

Other lawmakers spoke out against the discharge petitions as well as the resolutions.

“If they [Gulf states] don’t buy arms from us, they’re going to buy them from China or Russia,” Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn told VOA. “Look, these countries are not democracies, we recognize that. But our interests are aligned, particularly in containing and combating Iran.”

 Bahrain has taken part in the Saudi-led coalition waging an air campaign over Yemen that has resulted in a staggering death toll in the country’s bloody civil war.
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FILE – Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez speaks with the media on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 5, 2019. VOA

Asked if the bloodshed in Yemen gave him pause about U.S. arms sales to the region, Cornyn said, “It does. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot we can do about it. It’s a civil war that the Iranians are trying to take advantage of, arming the Houthis to attack Saudi Arabia. I don’t think that should paralyze us, even though it’s a serious concern.”

The Senate could vote as early as next week on separate resolutions disapproving $8.1 billion in arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan.

In the House of Representatives, four Democrats filed resolutions Wednesday that, if passed, would block the licenses required for the sales to move ahead.

Earlier this year, President Donald Trump vetoed a bipartisan congressional resolution ending U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition targeting Yemen.

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Aside from the Yemeni conflict, lawmakers from both parties have repeatedly protested Saudi Arabia’s role in the October 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. (VOA)

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US Sanctions on Cuba Deterring American Firms from Exploring Its Telecommunications Sector

It remains unclear how open it would be to U.S. investment in the strategic telecoms sector

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FILE - Cubans check their phones at an internet hotspot in Havana, Cuba, Aug. 10, 2018. VOA

U.S. sanctions on Cuba are deterring American firms from exploring its telecommunications sector even as Washington seeks to expand internet access on the Communist-run island, according to the final report of a U.S. government task force released on Tuesday.

Chinese companies dominate Cuba’s telecoms sector, a status quo “worth challenging given concerns that the Cuban government potentially obtains its censorship equipment from Chinese Internet infrastructure providers,” the report said.

Cuba’s government protested the U.S. State Department’s creation of a Cuba Internet Task Force last year as “foreign interference.” It remains unclear how open it would be to U.S. investment in the strategic telecoms sector.

“U.S. companies informed the subcommittees they are often deterred from entering the market due to uncertainty caused by frequent changes to U.S. regulations concerning Cuba,” according to the task force, convened last year by the State Department.

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U.S. sanctions on Cuba are deterring American firms from exploring its telecommunications sector. Pixabay

U.S. presidents have successively tightened and loosened the decades-old U.S. trade embargo on Cuba imposed in the years after its 1959 revolution.

Former President Barack Obama created a loophole for U.S. telecommunications companies to provide certain services to Cuba. His successor, Donald Trump, maintained the loophole but tightened the broader sanctions, worsening the overall business climate.

Banks are increasingly reluctant to process payments originating in Cuba. Some telecoms firms surveyed by the task force said that was putting them off offering key services and products in the country.

The task force advised the U.S. government to clear up the regulatory uncertainty and seek feedback on how to improve telecoms firms’ ability to invest.

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Until 2013, the internet was largely available to the public in Cuba only at tourist hotels amid the U.S. embargo, lack of cash and concerns over the free flow of information.

The government has increased web access in recent years, installing a fiber-optic cable to Venezuela and introducing cyber cafes, Wi-Fi hot spots and mobile internet.

Cuban telecoms monopoly ETECSA signed a deal earlier this year with Alphabet’s Google on increasing connectivity, but the two have not publicly agreed on any significant investments. (VOA)