Obama tells Congress he plans to remove Cuba from terrorism list


President Barack Obama told Congress on Tuesday he intends to remove Cuba from a U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, clearing the way for restoring diplomatic relations and reopening embassies shut for more than half a century.

Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro sat down at a Western Hemisphere summit in Panama on Saturday for the first meeting of its kind between U.S. and Cuban leaders in nearly 60 years.

Cuba's communist government had flatly demanded removal from the U.S. blacklist as a condition for normal relations between the two former Cold War foes. Obama ordered a review of Cuba's status after he and Castro announced a diplomatic breakthrough on Dec. 17.

Cuba was placed on the list in 1982 when it was aiding rebel movements in Africa and Latin America. But Havana long ago said it had ceased the policy of supporting foreign insurgencies. Presence on the list, however, has continued to limit its access to international banking and overseas financial markets.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement welcoming Obama's decision that “circumstances have changed since 1982,” when Cuba was listed “because of its efforts to promote armed revolution by forces in Latin America.”

In his report to Congress, Obama certified that “the government of Cuba has not provided any support for international terrorism during the preceding six-month period,” and “has provided assurances that it will not support acts of international terrorism in the future.”

Congress has 45 days to consider Obama's decision before it takes effect, but lawmakers cannot stop it unless both chambers approve a joint resolution, a move that is highly unlikely.

Many of Obama's fellow Democrats hailed his decision and some experts said it was long overdue.

But U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American lawmaker from south Florida and newly announced Republican presidential candidate, denounced it as a “terrible” decision, saying Cuba was helping North Korea evade sanctions and harboring fugitives from American justice.

The fugitives include Joanne Chesimard, wanted in the slaying of a New Jersey state trooper in the early 1970s.

Republican U.S. Representative Mario Diaz-Balart, another Cuban-American lawmaker from Florida, accused Obama of “capitulating to dictators.”

There was no immediate comment from the Cuban government.

BANKS CAUTIOUS

Obama could have announced his intention to lift the terrorism designation and move forward on restoring diplomatic relations at last weekend's summit.

But U.S. officials privately said they saw the issue as leverage in broader normalization negotiations. For their part, the Cubans at first resisted formal assurances renouncing terrorism, as required by U.S. law for delisting, according to U.S. officials.

Cuba's removal from the list will ease certain economic sanctions on the island, but the broader U.S. embargo on Cuba will remain in place because only Congress can end it. Iran, Sudan and Syria remain on the list.

Some experts said U.S. banks would remain cautious for now. “Banks are certainly watching for further developments but the Cuban government has a lot more steps to take until the industry can take action,” said Rob Rowe, vice president of the American Bankers Association.

The two countries have made headway toward an agreement on embassies. A U.S. official expressed optimism but added, “We're still not quite there yet.” Among the unresolved issues is a U.S. demand for freedom of movement for its diplomats.

Cuba's human rights record still draws criticism from Washington, and Havana has shown little if any sign of political reform.

“We will continue to have differences with the Cuban government,” the White House said.

Geoff Thale of the Washington Office on Latin America, a private group that promotes democracy in the hemisphere, said: “Taking Cuba off the list of terrorist states is a sensible, and long-overdue step.”

Cuba was added to the list at the height of the Cold War when it was aiding leftist insurgencies such as the FARC rebels in Colombia. The most recent State Department report in 2013 also accused Havana of providing “safe haven” to Basque ETA separatist guerrillas but said its ties had become more distant to the group, which last year pledged to disarm.

Cuba is now promoting peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC.

ADL says Europe capitulated in Palestine UN vote


The Anti-Defamation League accused European countries of “capitulating to Arab intimidation” in voting to recognize Palestine as a non-member state at the United Nations.

“They have acted without courage and capitulated to Arab intimidation and pressure,” ADL National Director Abraham H. Foxman said in a statement.

The Czech Republic was the only member of the European Union that on Thursday that voted against recognizing the Palestinian Authority as a non-member state observer at the U.N. General Assembly. Only eight other nations voted ‘no,’ including Israel, the U.S., Canada and Panama.

Among the nations that voted yes were Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Ireland, Belgium, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, and Greece. Other E.U. nations abstained.

The ADL statement singling out Europe was separate from another statement from the group, expressing regret at the vote. A wide array of U.S. Jewish groups condemned the vote, although several praised it, including Americans for Peace Now.

Previously, the Palestine Liberation Organization had the status of non-member observer entity.

“They were intimidated at a cost, and they have lost the credibility to play a serious role in bringing the Israelis and Palestinians together,” Foxman said.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Thursday criticized the General Assembly's vote as “unfortunate and counterproductive.”

Alon Liel, a former director-general of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, called the European vote “a sucker-punch” to the policies of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, according to Ynet, the Israeli news site.

He was among several hundred activists who celebrated the vote at a rally in Tel Aviv, the news site reported.

Thousands of flag-waving Palestinians set off fireworks and danced in the streets on Thursday to celebrate the vote, Reuters reported.

Panama Solar Project Shows Power of Tikkun Olam


At 7 a.m., after a long, grueling red-eye journey from Los Angeles, our plane landed on a narrow runway carved out of the lush rainforest deep in a remote island area of
the Panamanian outback. As my son, Adam, 13, and I trudged off the plane, 40 smiling Kuna natives eagerly welcomed us to the exotic island of Playón Chico.

With vivid memories of Adam’s bar mitzvah just a fortnight prior replaying in my mind, I couldn’t help but think that this would be the adventure of a lifetime.
Indeed, it was.

We were on a tikkun olam (heal the world) mission to change the lives of Spanish-speaking natives from numerous island villages in the province of Comarca de Kuna Yala by providing training on how to install and maintain solar power systems.

While sleeping in hammocks in a primitive island village, subsisting on a grilled fish diet and using an outhouse is not the typical way a father commemorates his son’s bar mitzvah, that’s exactly what we did over the next five incredible days.

Ironically, Adam’s Torah portion, Noach, speaks about renewing the environment and bringing the natural world back into order after an epic flood. Similarly, Adam saw our mission as a way of renewing nature in a faraway part of the world.

With no electricity in the province (not to mention roads, modern plumbing or reliable communications), having solar power would help ensure a good, renewable energy source and provide some energy self-sufficiency for these people. We worked through the auspices of my company, Permacity Construction, a firm specializing in solar power installation, and Codesta, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the Panamanian environment.

We became involved in this because we’ve always been concerned about the environment and reducing society’s dependence on fossil fuels. Adam has been an active supporter of Pennies for the Rainforest and Heal the Bay.

I suppose this philanthropic orientation emanates from my parents, Jerry and Lorraine, who have long been active in tikkun olam projects like the environment and causes in the Jewish community and beyond, including serving in leadership roles in our family synagogue, Temple Emanuel. They’re very hands-on people, so Adam and I were simply following in their footsteps with our mission.

The communities we helped are among Panama’s poorest, and the living conditions were quite primitive: We lived on the top floor of a small cement home — one of the few on this island of many dirt-floor grass huts — and the owners lived below.

The bathroom was a simple outhouse of wood poles and palm leaves over the ocean. We showered with a bucket. Our diet consisted primarily of plentiful fish (served complete with head and tail), lentils, rice and banana soup. Adam and I both endured stomach ailments and much fatigue from a lack of sleep.

The mission involved months of preparation, including research on the villages’ energy needs, their structures and what local resources — if any — were available. Some villages had generators, but the gas needed to power them is very expensive. Some older, inoperable solar panels exist, but nobody knows how to repair them.

I ultimately produced a detailed, 40-page solar power system training manual that was translated into Spanish. Finally, I packed and shipped many tools and parts so that each village would have a complete solar power system kit.

In Playón Chico, with the aid of a skilled translator and some other helpers, including Adam, I spent several days teaching a solar energy crash course to 34 top-notch, handpicked students who commuted by dugout canoes to our classroom.

The mission culminated when we finished installing solar panels, batteries and related equipment to power a lighting system in the community’s large town hall, or congresso. Though consisting of just seven 20-watt fluorescent lights (equivalent to 75-watt bulbs), this marked a major advancement, because the congresso had been previously illuminated by only one kerosene lantern.

That evening, when the new lights were turned on, cheers erupted as hundreds of villagers began a long celebration of dance, song and hand pipe music, along with speeches. The village chief gave Adam and me the royal treatment, seating us on his special bench and treating us like heroes.

It was wonderful to watch as the Kuna Yala people began to control their own destiny. We also were thrilled to see that natives from different islands, who had hardly even met before, were now beginning to work together collaboratively, including successful efforts to expand the use of solar power.
This experience has truly inspired Adam.

“I definitely want to do more as I get older,” he says. “Now I know what I can do. I’ve seen firsthand what things can be improved and how things can be improved. And I definitely want to help out more in the future.”

Quite frankly, that’s the best bar mitzvah gift Adam’s mother, Anne, and I could have ever given him.