Foreign Correspondent

How Cuba is succeeding in the fight against COVID

Havana Doctor Liz Caballero helps treat -- and prevent -- outbreaks.

One morning along a street with cracked sidewalks and houses with fading paint, Dr. Liz Caballero and two medical students stopped at every door in that part of Havana’s Vedado district. During normal times, these neighborhood doctors practice preventative medicine. Now, they participate in a full-blown campaign against the COVID 19 pandemic.

Dr. Caballero knocked on a door and asked if anyone in the house had a fever or other COVID 19 symptoms. The resident replied everyone was fine.

Havana Doctor Liz Caballero helps treat — and prevent — outbreaks. Photo by Reed Lindsay.

“My son and wife are doctors and they disinfect before entering the house,” she said. “We all have surgical face masks, even my boy has one.”

Community health workers are assisted by the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, the country’s neighborhood watch organizations, and by the Women’s Federation. The government requires everyone to wear face masks outside so many Cubans make their own.

Cuba faces shortages of testing equipment and some medications. People wait in long lines for chicken and toilet paper. But what the island lacks in material resources, it makes up for with a sophisticated public health system.

Public health authorities use classic anti-epidemic techniques to identify those infected, quarantine and treat them, and then trace all their contacts. See this short video from the Havana-based Belly of the Beast:

So far, government efforts have severely restricted the pandemic’s spread since it was first discovered among foreign tourists on March 11. As of May 22, out of a population of 11 million, Cuba had 1,916 COVID cases and only 81 deaths. The Cuban infection rate is .71 people per 100,000 inhabitants. The US rate is 29, about 40 times higher.

Victor Wallis, a political science professor at Berklee College of Music in Boston, attributed Cuba’s success to its socialist medical system.

“Cuba’s enormous investment in the health sector rather than the military is a new kind of priority,” he told me. “It focuses on human well being.”

Hugs and kisses

Cuba initiated a massive social distancing campaign, but Dr. Caballero admitted that enforcement can be hard in a Latin culture used to hugs and kisses on each cheek when greeting friends.

“Sometimes it is difficult to stop shaking hands,” she said. “But right now Cubans have internalized that the most important thing is social distancing.”

Here’s Dr. Caballero in a Belly of the Beast video:

Unlike the US, said Dr. Caballero, all medical care is free in Cuba, including dentistry, eye care and mental health services.

In Cuba, “people go to the doctor as soon as possible,” she said. “Sometimes in other countries they don’t go early because they don’t have health insurance; they don’t have money to pay.”

Cuba’s socialist medical system is different from anything politicians propose in the US. Even with the most progressive plans in the US, such as Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All, the government would act as an insurance company to pay private doctors and hospitals.

In Cuba, the state runs the entire medical system from medical schools, to neighborhood doctors, to local clinics and hospitals.

After the 1959 Cuban revolution, Afro Cubans and people from working-class backgrounds were able to attend medical schools for the first time.

Starting with their first med school class, doctors are educated to serve the people, not seek fame and wealth. Education is completely free, and upon graduation, doctors must practice for three years in underserved communities and rural areas.

Cuba has among the world’s highest doctor/patient ratios. And Cubans have a higher life expectancy than in the US.

Today, Cuba has sent 30,000 doctors to treat people mostly in poor countries. Today, 2,000 doctors and nurses are fighting COVID 19 in 23 countries from Mexicoto Italy.

See what these doctors and nurses say about US government criticism of their work in this short Belly of the Beast video:

Starting in the 1970s, Cuba built from scratch a sophisticated biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry. Cuba has developed a number of internationally recognized pharmaceuticals.

Cuban scientists are currently conducting joint research into a lung cancer drug with the Roswell Cancer Center in Buffalo. Doctors in Cuba and China are using a Cuban interferon drug to treat COVID 19.

Serious problems

Cuba’s health care system has plenty of problems, however. Isis Allen, a 60-year-old journalist, stood in line outside a pharmacy in her Havana neighborhood. Her mother needs medicine for circulatory problems. Sometimes the pharmacy has the drugs, sometimes not. 

“You can spend a day waiting in line at a pharmacy,” she said.

Her mother’s medicine must be imported from overseas. Even when Cuba makes the drugs in Havana, the health ministry has a hard time getting the raw materials.

Allen attributed shortages to the US trade embargo, known in Cuba as the blockade. She called the unilateral blockade “an embarrassment for the United States, a powerful country that is making this island, with such a hard-working and dedicated people, suffer so much.”

Food and medicine are supposed to be exempt from trade restrictions under the official terms of the embargo, which the US first imposed on Cuba in 1962. However, many companies–even those outside the US–fear prosecution in US courts and won’t trade with Cuba.

Swiss medical equipment corporations refused to sell Cuba ventilators in late April. A few weeks earlier, China tried to send Cuba surgical masks, gloves, ventilators and other medical supplies. But Avianca, the Colombian-based airline originally contracted to make the delivery, cancelled the flight, fearing US sanctions.

In another case the Swiss NGO MediCuba found that its bank wouldn’t transfer money to pay for shipping medicine to Cuba. The bank eventually agreed to the funds transfer. But in another incident, the bank of a pharmaceutical supplier refused MediCuba’s payments because the medicine would be shipped to Cuba.

Since it inception the US embargo has cost the island almost a trillion dollars in economic damage, according to José Ramón Cabañas, Cuba’s ambassador to the US. But it has failed politically. “Some people think they finally can defeat the Cuban Revolution. It won’t happen.”

The US blockade isn’t the only source of Cuba’s problems, however. Cuba gets most of its hard currency from tourism and remittances from citizens living abroad. The Cuban government closed the country to tourism in March and has not indicated when it might resume. So Cuba lacks hard currency to purchase food, petroleum and many other products.

For over a decade, the government has promoted economic reforms. The state continues to control major industries, while encouraging the growth of small, private businesses. Even before the current crisis, however, Cuba saw a growing currency black market and hoarding of scarce consumer products.

AsI wrote after a January trip to Cuba, Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel had planned to raise state worker salaries and encourage provincial self sufficiency in food production. The growing world recession has made economic reforms all the more difficult.

To hug again

Despite these serious problems, the Cuban government has organized an impressive anti-pandemic campaign. The island’s heath care system is built on solidarity not profit, according to Professor Wallace.

“Cuban policies correspond to ancient medical precepts but have been ignored by US capitalism,” he said. “Treat people because they’re human beings in need. It’s their national policy.”

On a neighborhood level Dr. Caballero is optimistic about beating the pandemic. Cubans will return to normal lives, she said.

“When all this passes, we will hug again,” she said. “We will return to what we have always done.”

Reese Erlich has reported from Cuba since 1968 and is author of the book Dateline Havana: The Real Story of U.S. Policy and the Future of Cuba. 

Foreign Correspondent: Michael Flynn’s forgotten Turkish connection

Michael Fynn's ties to Turkey have been largely forgotten in the news media.

Trump’s Justice Department wants to drop all charges against former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn despite his having admitted to being guilty. Twice. The judge in his case has so far refused to knuckle under and is investigating whether Flynn’s conviction should stand.

In 2017, Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about a secret phone call with Russia’s ambassador to the US. Lost in the hubbub over Russiagate, however, was Flynn’s slimy role as a lobbyist for Turkey. A Turkish businessman paid Flynn $530,000 in 2016 to push pro-Turkey, anti-Kurd policies in hopes of influencing the Trump Administration.

Michael Fynn’s ties to Turkey have been largely forgotten in the news media.

The American public has mostly forgotten about Flynn’s Turkey connections, says Steven A. Cook, senior fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in  Washington, D.C.

“There’s more going on with Turkey than people may realize,” Cook tells me.

Flynn’s money-driven opportunism is just one example of the operations of Washington’s foreign policy lobbyists. As a candidate, Donald Trump correctly criticized the Washington swamp, but as President, instead of draining it, he has shoveled in more muck.

I’ve dipped my toe into the swamp on occasion by attending conferences and press events populated by Washington’s elite. I’ve rubbed elbows with the likes of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Chaney’s former chief of staff, Lewis “Scooter” Libby. Believe me, these folks are just as evil in person as they appear on TV.

Washington swamp creatures are easily identified by their black pinstriped suits, wingtip oxfords, and red power ties. Two kinds of people attend these events: those in power and those hoping to seize it.

Washington is crawling with former diplomats, intelligence officers, and business executives eager to influence policy and make a buck. And so enters former army Lieutenant General Michael Thomas Flynn, poster boy for the military-industrial complex.

Flynn’s checkered past

Flynn, who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, came to Washington  during the Obama Administration as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. He was forced to resign for insubordination in 2014, whereupon he joined the Washington swamp by forming the Flynn Intel Group.

In 2016, Flynn hitched his wagon to candidate Donald Trump, giving a fiery speech at the Republican National Convention in which he echoed the call to “lock up” Hillary Clinton for her handling of State Department emails.

Behind the scenes, however, the Flynn Intel Group signed a contract totaling $600,000 with a Turkish businessman who had close ties to authoritarian Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Erdoğanwanted Washington to extradite Fethullah Gulen, a political opponent living in Pennsylvania since 1999. Gulen is a rival political Islamist who had a falling out with Erdogan.
The Turkish president accuses Gulen of organizing the unsuccessful July 2016 coup. At the time Flynn spoke favorably about the military trying to overthrow Erdogan. He also criticized Turkey for allowing terrorists to cross the border into Syria.

But after receiving the contract to help Turkey, he did a 180-degree turn and supported Erdogan’s policies.

“Flynn believes whatever is good for Flynn is good for America,” Kani Xulam, director of the American Kurdish Information Network, tells me. “The minute they put money in his bank account, he became pro-Turkey. That was the shocking part.”

Kidnapping

In September 2016, Flynn arranged a meeting between former US officials and Turkish leaders, including the country’s foreign minister, energy minister, and Erdogan’s son-in-law.

Participants at the meeting talked about kidnapping Gulen and bringing him to Turkey. Former Central Intelligence Agency Director James Woolsey, who attended the meeting, said they discussed “a covert step in the dead of night to whisk this guy away.”

In December, Flynn wrote an op-ed for the influential Washington publication The Hill in which he compared Gulen to both Osama bin Laden and Ayatollah Khomeini. According to analyst Cook, the op-ed could have been written in Ankara: “It was all Turkey’s talking points.”

Flynn didn’t tell The Hill editors that he was a paid lobbyist for Turkey.

Flynn became part of Trump’s transition team after November 2016, and he used the position to push anti-Kurdish policies. At that time, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces were on the verge of taking control of the ISIS-controlled city of Raqqa, Syria. He told the Obama Administration not to provide arms to the SDFand implemented that policy when Trump came to power in 2017.

But Flynn’s stint as National Security Advisor lasted for only three weeks. He was forced to resign after revelations of his phone call to the Russian ambassador. In March, Flynn registered as a foreign agent for Turkey.

In 2019, a federal jury convicted Flynn’s business associate, Bijan Kian, on two felonies: conspiracy to violate lobbying laws and failure to register as a foreign agent for Turkey. Flynn was scheduled to testify against Kian but changed his story at the last minute, causing problems for the prosecution. The judge later tossed the verdict, saying the prosecution didn’t prove its case.

As part of an overall deal with federal prosecutors, Flynn was never charged in connection with his lobbying for Turkey. It seems unlikely that he ever will be.

Corrupt world

Flynn’s activities are just one example of the corrupt world of foreign lobbying. Recently, The New York Times exposed how defense contractor Raytheon pressured the Trump Administration to sell sophisticated weapons to Saudi Arabia, which were then used to slaughter civilians in Yemen.

The Yemen war, which began in 2015, has killed an estimated 100,000 people and displaced 80 percent of the population. Saudi air bombardment of hospitals, schools, and other civilian targets helped create one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. US arms manufacturers such as Lockheed Martin and Raytheon have profited handsomely from the slaughter.

Until recently, Raytheon’s vice president for government relations was a former career army officer named Mark Esper. Today Esper is Secretary of Defense.

Crawling into bed with lobbyists is bipartisan activity. The Obama Administration sold $10 billion in arms to Saudi Arabia and its allies. Trump has openly boasted that US arms sales provide corporate profits and jobs at home.

“Trump has been more forthcoming praising US relations with Saudis because they want to buy more weapons,” Kurdish activist Xulam tells me. “He doesn’t care what Saudis do with the weapons.”

Analyst Cook says the entire system of foreign lobbying needs major reform. “It’s a scandal that needs to be cleaned up,” he says. “It’s legalized foreign influence peddling.”

Reese Erlich’s nationally distributed column, Foreign Correspondent, appears every two weeks. Follow him on Twitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him on Facebook; and visit his webpage.

Foreign Correspondent: Trump v. Biden on foreign policy

We all know that President Donald Trump’s foreign policy has been a disaster. But is Joe Biden’s any better?

Trump promised to stop America’s endless wars, but has stationed some 80,000 troops in the Middle East. He pulled out of the Iran nuclear accord, and imposed harsh sanctions and even sent drones to assassinate a top Iranian Revolutionary Guard. But Iran still has more political influence in Iraq than the United States. His administration negotiated an agreement with the Taliban, only to see it rejected by the US-installed Afghan government.

Biden, the presumptive Democratic Party presidential nominee, sharply criticizes Trump but continues to defend many of the failed policies of the Obama Administration.

During Biden’s time as Vice President, the White House went from fighting two active wars (Afghanistan and Iraq) to seven (Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Yemen, drone war in Pakistan, and escalation in Somalia).

Biden now says he disagreed with some of Obama’s interventionist policies, most notably in Libya. Today Biden calls for easing Iran sanctions, returning to the Iran nuclear accord, and reestablishing relations with Cuba.

“Biden represents the return of the classical foreign policy establishment,” Alan Minsky, executive director of Progressive Democrats of America, tells me. “Biden is running a campaign as a restoration candidate.”

But given significant changes in the world’s balance of power, it’s not all that clear what Biden could restore.

A changing world

Many corporate, State Department, military, and intelligence officials—otherwise known as the Deep State—hate Trump for his nationalist, America First policies.

The President imposed tariffs on allies around the world. He’s questioned the need for NATO. China and Russia have grown stronger economically and politically on the world stage, even after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Even card-carrying members of the Deep State acknowledge Washington has no reason to keep fighting in the Middle East. Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel,says what’s “been hard for many in the American foreign-policy establishment, including me, to accept: Few vital interests of the US continue to be at stake in the Middle East.”

In a major mea culpa in The Wall Street Journal, Indyk admits, “[A]fter the sacrifice of so many American lives, the waste of so much energy and money in quixotic efforts that ended up doing more harm than good, it is time for the US to find a way to escape the costly, demoralizing cycle of crusades and retreats.”

Whoever wins the election in November will face an economy wracked by recession, an electorate wary of more long-term military interventions, and other countries determined to go their own way.

What kind of foreign policy will that produce?

Afghan refugees: Both US and Afghanistan residents are tired of the war.

Biden boasts

Biden boasts of his foreign policy credentials. He chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 2001-2003 and 2007-2009. While generally hewing to interventionist Democratic Party policies, he has taken some independent stands, for example, by voting against the 1991 Gulf War.

By far Biden’s most reprehensible stand was his strong support for the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq. As documented by Professor Stephen Zunes in The Progressive, Biden forcefully supported the war, but later claimed he opposed it. (Of course, Trump lied about his support for the war as well.)

When the Iraqi occupation failed in the mid-2000s, Biden infamously called for splitting Iraq into three parts along sectarian lines, so the United States could continue imperial control at least in Kurdistan.

Even today, Biden favors maintaining some troops in the region, using the excuse of fighting ISIS. “I think it’s a mistake to pull out the small number of troops that are there now to deal with ISIS,” he’s said.

Biden hasn’t learned the lessons of the Afghan war either. After 19 years of failed war and occupation, he still wants to maintain some troops in the country.

“I would bring American combat troops in Afghanistan home during my first term,” Biden tells the Council on Foreign Relations. “Any residual US military presence in Afghanistan would be focused only on counterterrorism operations.”

But whoever wins in November will have to face the new reality: People in Afghanistan and the United States are fed up with the war. All foreign troops will have to withdraw.

Venezuela

Besides his bad record in the Middle East, Biden continues to support US domination in Latin America. Both Trump and Biden call for the removal of Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro, for example. Last year they supported efforts by Juan Guaido, the former head of the National Assembly, to anoint himself president.

The Venezuelan government accuses Washington and Guaido of trying to overthrow Maduro by armed force. Rightwing, former military officers tried to assassinate Maduro with a drone strike last year. Then on May 4, a group of mercenaries—including two US Army vets—landed on the Venezuelan coast intending to overthrow Maduro and install Guaido in power. The coup plot was organized by a Florida private security company. It has the earmarks of a US intelligence operation, although not surprisingly, Trump denies it.

While Biden has not formally called for regime change in Venezuela, neither has he criticized the armed coup attempts. And he favors economic sanctions to cripple the economy, saying: “The US should push for stronger multilateral sanctions so that supporters of the regime cannot live, study, shop, or hide their assets in the United States, Europe, or Latin America.”

Biden has the potential of attracting working class and young voters disillusioned with Trump’s aggression overseas. Younger voters have seen the country at war their entire lives, says Erik Sperling, executive director of the advocacy group Just Foreign Policy. “They know that, at a minimum, 30,000 people die every year in the US from lack of health insurance. Fighting endless wars is not their priority.”

If Biden wins on November 3, then starting on November 4 progressives should be pressuring Biden to do more than “restore” US foreign policy.

After the election, says Minsky, “We will be poised and ready to oppose a whole range of issues pursued by a Biden Administration.”

Reese Erlich’s nationally distributed column, Foreign Correspondent, appears every two weeks. Follow him on Twitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him on Facebook; and visit his webpage.

Foreign Correspondent: Here comes the recession

Trump hasn't kept his promises to end foreign wars -- in fact, just the opposite.

The current recession was triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic. But after 11 years of economic boom, a capitalist bust was inevitable. And it’s being made worse by the Trump Administration’s blunders.

Meanwhile socialist China, despite very real problems, is effectively combating the pandemic and starting an economic recovery.

Here in the US, shuttered businesses, massive unemployment, and the spread of a deadly disease are grinding the economy to a standstill.

Economists at Morgan Stanley predict the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) will hit -38 percent for the second quarter this year and end up at -5.5 percent for 2020. By comparison, the GDP hit a low of -8.5 percent  in a single quarter during the Great Recession of 2007-09. (A recession is defined as two or more successive quarters of negative GDP.)

Trump’s bungling is just going to make the recession worse.

Optimists in Washington predict a “V” shaped recovery—a sharp economic plunge followed by a sharp return to normalcy. They believe we’ll be back to Trump boom times as soon as the pandemic recedes.

But that prediction comes from Fantasyland.

Large states such as New York and California will be shuttered at least until May. But because of the lack of a national plan, other states are seeing an upswing in virus infections and have only recently ordered residents to shelter in place.

New COVID epicenters will likely emerge in Florida, Texas, and other states where right-wing Republican governors refused to protect their people in a timely manner. As late as April 7, when 95 percent of the US population was under instruction to “shelter in place,” nine states had refused to issue statewide stay-at-home orders.

So we may see pandemic recoveries in some areas while others continue shutting down for months.

“There will be no nationwide all-clear signal,” says Sylvia Allegretto, a labor economist and co-chair of the Center on Wage and Employment Dynamics at the University of California, Berkeley. In a phone interview, she told me that epidemiologists predict that the virus will continue in regional hotpots. “So we’ll likely see an initial significant economic bounce back followed by slower, possibly uneven, growth.”

How bad is the economy?

David Kotz, an economics professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and  an old friend, told me the US was due for a recession as an inevitable part of the capitalist boom and bust cycle.

The economy did show signs of a possible recession towards the end of 2019 and beginning of 2020, he explains. “Then the coronavirus walloped the economy.”

Kotz said the decisions made by the Trump Administration have worsened the pandemic and hurt the economy. Trump hasn’t made sure that hospitals and first responders have the necessary equipment and supplies, so “states and localities are forced to compete with one another for scarce medical resources, instead of them being directed to the areas of greatest need.”

The Trump Administration cut funding for vital health services and replaced competent government officials with “political hacks whose only qualification is willingness to praise Trump. That has undermined the ability of the government to respond to this crisis,” he said.

“Trump’s slow and inconsistent response to the pandemic will prolong the economic crisis,” said Kotz.

Trump has also refused to suspend tariffs imposed on numerous countries, from France to China. The tariff policy had already slowed the economy, according to Kotz, because business people couldn’t be sure if other countries would impose retaliatory tariffs.

“Tariffs reduce business investments and will retard the recovery,” he said.

The US government response to the pandemic has been to give qualifying individuals $1,200 direct cash payments and let small and large businesses apply for large loans and grants. The federal government will also extend unemployment insurance, which will be changed to include gig workers and independent contractors.

But even this $2 trillion package won’t be enough. Leaders in Washington are already preparing for another outpouring of cash. They face a serious problem, however. No one can predict when the quarantines will end, nor whether consumers will spend money once they do. The recession could deepen.

Needed reforms

The recession has already changed political dialogue in the US. Small government Republicans suddenly favor massive government intervention. Corporate denunciations of socialism have transformed into cries of “help me, Washington.”

Reforms that once seemed out in left field are being seriously considered. Here are a few reforms that could slow the recession and permanently help the economy:

* Medicare for All. A single payer health care system would guarantee that everyone could be tested and treated. It could improve health care delivery for African Americans and other people of color.

* Federally mandated paid sick leave.

*Nationalized payroll where the federal government pays workers’ wages to their employers for the duration of the crisis as is being done in Germany, Denmark, and Ireland.

* Use the Defense Production Act to produce needed health equipment and make sure it’s distributed where it is needed.

* Expand social programs and increase emergency aid to states and cities.

* Suspend monthly payments for rent, mortgages, and student, medical, and consumer debt for the duration.

The government could partially pay for such plans by trimming the Pentagon budget and increasing taxes on the rich. But it would have to allocate trillions more. The government bailout laws now spend trillions to subsidize big corporations. Why not provide assistance directly to ordinary people?

Resistance

Unionized nurses in western Pennsylvania went on strike to protest the failure of their nursing home employer to provide protective masks. Gig workers at Shipt, a delivery service, have started a unionization effort. Amazon workers are increasingly angry at working long hours under unsafe conditions. Some walked off the job to protest.

It’s too soon to know if these are the beginnings of a wider anti-corporate, pro-union movement. But an ongoing recession will make people angry and reduce at least some of Trump’s support among white workers and small business people.

So tie your face mask tight. The coronavirus and its impact are yet to be fully felt.

Reese Erlich’s nationally distributed column, Foreign Correspondent, appears every two weeks . Follow him on Twitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him onFacebook; and visit his webpage.

Foreign Correspondent: US beats the drums of war in Iran

Iraqis increasingly dislike the presence of US soldiers. Reese Erlich photo.

While the world focuses on the coronavirus pandemic, tensions between the US and Iran are heating up.

The two countries are engaging in tit-for-tat military attacks that threaten a wider war. In mid-March, Washington officials accused an Iran-allied militia of launching rockets at a US military base in Iraq, killing two American soldiers and one British soldier. The Pentagon retaliated with a missile strike against the group Kataib Hezbollahin Iraq, killing militiamen, five Iraqi servicemen, and a civilian who was also at the base. On March 26 rockets once again hit near the US Embassy in Baghdad’s Green Zone.

Iraqis increasingly dislike the presence of US soldiers. Reese Erlich photo.

The Pentagon sent two aircraft carriers to the region, claiming in a March 19 Navy statement that the US is protecting “freedom of navigation and [the] free flow of commerce.” Threatening a possible military attack on Iran, the Navy said the carriers “provide the combatant commander significant striking power for contingency operations.” 

Leaders in Washington and Tehran say they don’t want a full-scale war, but they are playing a dangerous game. And the people of Iraq will suffer the consequences.

“Iraq has become a proxy war between the US and Iran,” says Raed Jarrar, an Iraqi-born human rights activist and writer based in Washington, D.C., in a phone interview. “Iraq is paying in blood and treasure.”

How it all began

In 2018, US President Donald Trump unilaterally pulled out of the nuclear accord with Iran and imposed harsh sanctions on Tehran. Iran waited a year to see if the European signatories to the accord—Britain, France, and Germany—would live up to the agreement by engaging in normal trade and investment. The Europeans knuckled under to Trump, so Iran decided to slam down its fist.

By mid-2019, oil tankers from US-allied countries came under attack. Iran seized a U.K. tanker and shot down a US drone. Iran also pulled back from some provisions of the nuclear accord.

At the end of 2019, Iran-allied militias launched rocket and mortar attacks on US bases in Iraq. Washington portrays these militias as tools of Iran. Groups such as Kataib Hezbollah do receive arms and training from Iran, but they are also now part of the Iraqi army.

The US picks its favorites within the Iraqi military as well, arming and training Kurdish militias and Iraqi army special forces.

Kataib Hezbollah and similar Iran-allied militias initially bore the brunt of fighting ISIS, according to Patrick Theros, a former US ambassador to Qatar and now a strategic advisor to the Gulf International think tank in Washington, D.C.

“The militias are not Iranian controlled,” Theros tells me in a phone interview. “The Iranians can’t just send an order and be confident it will be obeyed.”

But the Trump Administration acts as if the militias are extensions of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, as seen in the January 3 assassination of Iranian military leader Qasem Soleinmani and Iraqi militia head Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

Assassinations backfire

Those assassinations were a huge mistake, according to Nader Talebzadeh, an analyst and influential TV host in Iran. “What the American President did was unify the Iranian people and took things to a different level,” he tells me in an interview.

Ordinary Iraqis were even more outraged at the murder of al-Muhandis, who was an extremely popular leader in the fight against ISIS, according to Theros.

“We’re killing Iraqis, not Iranians,” Theros says. “That affects the attitudes toward us.”

The Iraqi parliament passed a resolution calling for the withdrawal of all foreign troops. Iraqi military leaders demanded that Washington get permission from top Iraqi leadership prior to launching another retaliatory raid.

Trump responded to these assertions of Iraqi sovereignty by threatening to impose harsh sanctions and seize Iraq’s central bank reserves held by the Federal Reserve Bank in New York.

“That makes us look like an occupying force,” Theros notes wryly.

Resentment of Iran

Iraqis have plenty of legitimate complaints against the leaders in Tehran. Iranian troops entered Iraq to assist the fight against ISIS, but stayed to spread Iranian influence. Many resent Iran’s role in supporting brutal and corrupt Iraqi politicians.

Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis took to the streets in late 2019, protesting both the US and Iranian presence. Demonstrators burned down two Iranian consulates. Ordinary Iraqis were furious at the lack of electricity, water, and widespread government corruption. Iranian-allied militias and government forces brutally suppressed the peaceful demonstrations,killing more than 600 people and injuring tens of thousands.

The demonstrations forced the resignation of Prime Minister Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi on March 1. Adnan al-Zurufi was appointed the new prime minister, but parliament must confirm him by mid-April. Al-Zurufi had lived in the US for years and holds dual US/Iraqi citizenship. He returned to Iraq after the 2003 US invasion, and Washington installed him as governor of Najaf province.

Iraqi politicians are wheeling and dealing over al-Zurufi’s nomination. He has US backing and is hoping for Iranian support as well.

The opposition street protestors see al-Zurufi as part of the old establishment they oppose, but their numbers have dwindled. While thousands had occupied Baghdad’s Tahrir Square at the height of protests last year, only a few hundred remain today.

But Theros says the world shouldn’t write off Iraq’s protest movement. “Unless the government addresses the issues they were protesting, they will be back,” he says. “It’s gone dormant, but it’s not dead.”

US policy failure

Iran currently faces a series of crises: low international oil prices, major flooding in the south, and a spreading coronavirus pandemic.

Harsh, unilateral US sanctions have severely damaged the Iranian economy but have not changed Iran’s policies in the region. Nor has US military action.

Nevertheless, the Trump Administration is pressuring the new Iraqi prime minister to cut off imports of Iranian gas and electricity, in keeping with US sanctions. For the moment, Washington has given Iraq waivers to allow trade to continue. Many Iraqis don’t like Iran but the economies of the two countries are deeply intertwined.

“They can’t do it,” Theros says. “They have no choice but to choose Iran over the US.”

So the ball is in the US court. Trump can continue his “maximum pressure campaign” against Iran and face continued Iraqi attacks on US troops. Or he can back off to focus on domestic concerns and avoid a wider war.

Iranians can wait. They may yet see regime change in Washington this November, long before it comes to Tehran.

Reese Erlich’s nationally distributed column, Foreign Correspondent, appears every two weeks. He is author of The Iran Agenda Today: The Real Story Inside Iran and What’s Wrong with US Policy. Follow him on Twitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him on Facebook; and visit his webpage.

Foreign correspondent: I was under a brief coronavirus quarantine

Quarantined at home, with protective gear.

This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center.

On February 22, I left Iran after a week of covering the country’s parliamentary elections. Ten days later, my nose started running like a faucet. Normally, I would assume it’s a cold, pop some antihistamines, and proceed with my work.

But these are not normal times.

Quarantined at home, with protective gear.

Symptoms of the coronavirus include heavy breathing, fever, cough, and—yes—a runny nose. To be on the safe side, I decided to visit Kaiser Oakland, my ever-so-friendly health care provider.

Times are definitely not normal at the doctor’s office. Each registration station has a photocopied sheet listing symptoms of COVID-19, the flu-like disease contracted from the coronavirus. I tell the nurse about my journey to Iran, a country with one of the world’s highest COVID-19 death rates.

She hands me a face mask and shows me how to put it on. The hot air circulating from my breathing makes the mask uncomfortable. But what’s a little discomfort compared to the possibility of infecting the city of Oakland?

The doctor enters the exam room, and I repeat my concern about possible infection. He hears the words coronavirus and Iran, and bolts for the door. He pauses only to ask again: “Iran?” 

That Tehran taxi driver

My mind flashes back to that taxi driver in Tehran. He lived about 80 miles from Tehran in the city of Qom, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak. Iran had discovered only a handful of coronavirus infections at that point, so we joked about the driver’s health. Now I wonder if that’s the source of my infection.

I sit in the exam room reading The New York Times on my phone. I hear some rustling outside. A new doctor, Dr. Wilson Tse, enters wearing not exactly a hazmat suit, but a full length surgical gown, latex gloves, and a face mask.

We discuss whether my symptoms warrant taking the coronavirus test. I have written about the coronavirus and the importance of not panicking. If everyone with a runny nose crams the emergency rooms, there would be no space for seriously ill people. Given the limited number of coronavirus testing kits, public health facilities must choose to test the most serious cases.

That advice is fine until I become one of the cases.

Boston or Bust

As I sit in the doctor’s office, I consider my situation. In just a few days, I am scheduled to depart for a speaking tour at Harvard and other Boston area universities. The trip had been planned for months, and I really don’t want to cancel.

On the other hand, I certainly don’t want to spread the virus, becoming the Typhoid Mary of Boston. Nor am I anxious to die from COVID-19. I could see the opening line of my obituary: “Reese Erlich, the award-winning journalist who late in life spread the coronavirus to Boston, killing hundreds . . . .”

So what are my options? Dr. Tse calls Dr. Sumanth Rajagopal of Kaiser’s infectious disease department. I am told that I can self-quarantine for 14 days, starting on the day I first noticed symptoms. That means not leaving the house or coming in contact with anyone, including my wife. We would have to live in separate rooms, use separate bathrooms, and prepare separate meals.

Or we could ask the Alameda County Health Department to test me for the coronavirus and only impose the full quarantine if it came back positive. In the early stages of the epidemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) only allowed testing for a limited group of people exposed to the virus from China. But now the criteria have widened to include people like me.

My case, says Dr. Rajagopal, is borderline. So he calls Alameda County officials, and because of the unusual nature of my case, they call the CDC in Atlanta.

Infected and contagious

Meanwhile, Kaiser assumes I’m infected and contagious. I’m sitting on one of those uncomfortable plastic chairs that doctors’ offices always provide. I need to urinate, but Kaiser would have had to cordon off that bathroom and scrub it down before anyone could use it again. So I am given one of those plastic thingies with a wide opening and snap-on cap to pee in.

Once I leave the exam room, it must be thoroughly scrubbed down as well. After a two-hour wait, the decision comes back whether I would be tested. The answer is yes.

Poor Dr. Tse, who had already destroyed his previous personal protective equipment, must now don a new gown, gloves, and mask. He sticks a long, thin swab further up my nose than I thought possible. Same for the throat swab. He seals the swabs in plastic and prepares them for pick-up by the county health workers. They say the results would be back from the health department in 24-48 hours. We’ll see.

This quarantine business is serious. It pits the collective health of the community against individual rights. Sometimes the measures seem extreme. In early March, one whole floor of a downtown San Francisco office tower was closed because two employees had come in contact with an infected person. They didn’t necessarily have the virus; they just had contact with someone who did.

After writing about quarantines elsewhere in the world, for the first time I was entering that world myself. It’s no walk in the park—literally. I can’t even walk to the local park when nobody is there.

Quarantine begins

Amy Pine from the Alameda County Public Health Department gives me a call. She explains that the county has issued an order of isolation prohibiting me from leaving the house. I can have no visitors nor contact with the aforementioned wife.

The order of isolation includes this ominous warning: “Violation or failure to comply with this order may result in civil detention and is a misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment, fine, or both.”

“Where public health is in danger, health officers have quite a bit of power,” Pine says. “We want all people safe.”

But Pine, when I ask, says she knows of no cases where coronavirus carriers have been jailed. That’s reassuring.

Afterward, she calls me to explain a staff member will drop off some PPE (Personal Protective Equipment as I’ve now learned to call it). The staffer will drop a box on my front porch, leave, and then phone me.

I naively suggest that she ring the doorbell, which I assure her I haven’t touched in years. Who rings their own doorbell? But the staffer phoned me from the safety of her car.

Then about 44 hours after my Kaiser visit, a county public health worker called to say I had tested negative for the coronavirus. By then it wasn’t really a surprise. None of my Iranian colleagues had shown signs of infection. And I had been symptom free since that one day of a runny nose. I probably had a cold or allergy.

Hindsight

My experience raises an important question. Should I have done anything different? Did I waste valuable public health resources for what turned out to be a severe runny nose?

Normally, I wouldn’t have gone to a doctor at the first sign of my symptoms. I would have waited to see if more serious problems developed. That’s still the best advice for the general public. But, given my Iran trip, I had a much higher possibility of exposure. So I don’t regret my actions, nor do the doctors involved.

I dodged a bullet this time. My experience was quite mild compared to those undergoing long quarantine periods. I have the advantage of good health insurance, good care and a house big enough to accommodate the quarantine. Many Americans don’t.

But I developed a new appreciation of handling epidemics. My hat, gown, and gloves are off to public health professionals everywhere.

Reese Erlich’s nationally distributed column, Foreign Correspondent, appears every two weeks. He is author of The Iran Agenda Today: The Real Story Inside Iran and What’s Wrong with US Policy. Follow him on Twitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him on Facebook; and visit hiswebpage.

Foreign correspondent: Hardliners win in Iran but turnout was extremely low

Most Iranians ignored the campaign posters. In Tehran only 25% voted in the parliamentary elections. Photo by Reese Erlich

TEHRAN—The parliamentary candidates had rented a large hall for a campaign rally, but only a few hundred supporters showed up. They came to see Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf, a leading hardliner and possible presidential candidate next year.

As warm-up speakers droned on, the audience responded with ritualistic chants but little enthusiasm. Many stared at their smartphones. Then the event ended abruptly. Ghalibaf never showed up.

Most Iranians ignored the campaign posters. In Tehran only 25% voted in the parliamentary elections. Photo by Reese Erlich

The hardliners, known here as principalists, won a landslide victory in Iran’s February 21 parliamentary elections, but without the kind of enthusiasm that marked previous campaigns.

The principalists won all 30 seats in Tehran and 220 of the 290 total parliament seats. But the nationwide turnout was just 42.5 percent, compared to almost 62 percent for the 2016 parliamentary elections, and was the lowest since the 1979 Revolution. In Tehran, only 25 percent of eligible voters went to the polls.

The principalists defeated the reformists, who had previously dominated the parliament and supported President Hassan Rouhani.

A prominent journalist and reformist supporter predicted the principalist landslide. He told me that President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear accord in 2018 and the economic problems stemming from US sanctions “humiliated the reformists. It was Trump’s gift to the hardliners.”

Interviewed at random in Tehran, Abdullah Zamankhanpour expressed the view of many alienated residents. He used to be a member of the ultra-conservative paramilitaries known as basij, but quit in disgust when he saw corruption among the officers. Now the 62-year-old retiree doesn’t support either the principalists or the reformists.

“All the politicians are liars,” he told me.

Reformist demise

President Rouhani, a centrist, was first elected in 2013 with reformist support. He became very popular with the passage of a health care plan to help low-income Iranians, known locally as “Rouhani Care.”

Under Rouhani’s watch, Iran successfully negotiated the nuclear accord with the Obama Administration. That agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, placed stringent restrictions on Iran’s nuclear energy program. It opened the possibility of removing some US sanctions and allowing much needed foreign investment.

But Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement in 2018 badly undercut its supporters in Iran. The principalists argued that Rouhani and the reformists had given up the country’s national sovereignty, and then got stabbed in the back.

Nader Talebzadeh, a principalist leader and host of an influential weekly TV program, told me Rouhani never should have agreed to the pact in the first place. Iran has no nuclear weapons and no plans to build them, he said.

“We have signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty and accepted scrutiny by the International Atomic Energy Agency,” he said. “Why should we be sanctioned more?”

Events in the past month further contributed to the principalist victory. On January 3, a US drone assassinated General Qasem Soleimani at the Baghdad airport. Soleimani was an important figure in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and the nation’s second most popular leader, behind Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The assassination united Iranians in grief and anger. Funeral processions commemorating his death filled the streets of several cities, and the government estimates 25 million people participated.  Soleimani’s death strengthened the principalists because Iranians view them as staunch opponents of US aggression.

On January 8, an Iranian missile accidentally shot down a Ukrainian passenger jet. The government failed to acknowledge responsibility for three days, angering many Iranians. Reformists were dispirited by Rouhani’s response, and many chose not to vote at all.

Reformist v. principalist

Iran has a unique electoral system that allows elections—but only within a narrow range of candidates. Tens of thousands announced plans to run for parliament. The Guardian Council, a body of 12 Islamic clerics, makes the ultimate decision on who runs. This year, roughly half of the 14,444 prospective candidates were disqualified, the majority of whom were reformists and moderates. So the deck was already stacked in favor of the principalists.

The Iranian parliament has little real power, serving mainly as a sounding board for debates within Iran’s ruling circles. Real power lies with Khamenei, who can override decisions made by parliament and the president.

The principalists, who derive their power from control of the judiciary, intelligence services, and Revolutionary Guard, have cracked down hard on popular demonstrations and political dissidents.

Reformists seek moderate change within the Islamic system and have been relatively less repressive. Calling for free market reforms, however, they advocate neo-liberal economic policies of privatization and eliminating government subsidies to ordinary Iranians.

The principalists ran as populists, blaming Rouhani for the country’s 26 percent inflation rate as of January and an economy that shrank by 7.1 percentin 2019.

Sayed Miaad Salehi, an up-and-coming principalist, told a rally of retirees, “There’s no transparency concerning the very high salaries of some government officials. If elected, I will promote transparency and work to lower the outrageously high government salaries.”

Mahmoud Sadeghi, a reformist member of parliament, told me that the call to lower government salaries has a populist but “very superficial appeal.” He noted that the economy suffers under harsh US sanctions and from mismanagement in the economic system. Cutting high government salaries is “a very simple solution for complicated economic matters. These are populist views, but the economic problems are very deeply rooted.”

While all this is going on, Iran faces a coronavirus outbreak second only to China in the number of confirmed deaths. Virus cases were first discovered in Qom, a city 80 miles from Tehran. Initial reports indicate public health authorities were caught unprepared.

“The medical team is really helpless because it lacks special equipment and supplies, nor have they received necessary training to protect themselves,” one hospital source in Qom toldIranWire. “It uses the same supplies, like masks and disinfectants, as ordinary people do. The medical staff is extremely worried that they could carry the virus home with them.”

Containing the virus will be particularly difficult because people traditionally travel to see family during the Persian New Year, which begins March 20. It’s not yet clear what steps the government will take to quarantine the virus.

So now the Iranian government has one more major crisis to resolve. But in my conversations with dozens of Iranians, none said the crises will lead the government to compromise with the Trump Administration nor even hold negotiations. The country faces big problems, but Trump’s policies, everyone seems to agree, are not the solution.

Reese Erlich has reported from Iran since 2000 and is author of The Iran Agenda Today: The Real Story Inside Iran and What’s Wrong with US Policy. The Foreign Correspondent column appears twice monthly.

Foreign Correspondent: Reaction to coronavirus is overblown

Electron microscope image of the COVD-19 virus (photo by NIAID).

A new and deadly virus from China is coming to get you. Cancel your travel plans, quarantine your grandparents, and don’t let a Chinese person sneeze on you! Social media is all atwitter. Some Uber and Lyft drivers are even refusing to pick up passengers with Chinese-sounding names.

The mainstream media has produced reams of articles, many criticizing China for its mishandling of the crisis.

Electron microscope image of the COVD-19 virus (photo by NIAID).

Let’s calm down for a moment. The new virus, known as COVID-19, produces flu-like symptoms but rarely results in death; it is serious but hardly cause for panic. As of mid-week, the virus has infected more than 60,000 people and killed some 1,370 of them, almost all in China.

Only about two percent of the coronavirus-infected people have died, and they are mostly older with underlying health conditions. By comparison, the death rate was near 100 percent during the early years of the 1980s AIDS pandemic and the 2014 Ebola crisis.

So far, the coronavirus has not caused any deaths in the US and isn’t a serious threat here, according to Dr. James McLean, a board-certified emergency room doctor and old friend.

“People should be more concerned about regular influenza, which is far more deadly,” Dr. McLean tells me.

Existing influenza strains have already infected 180,000 Americans—and killed 10,000—during the 2019-20 flu season.

Wendel Brunner, the former director of public health in Contra Costa County, California, says the panic over COVID-19 follows a familiar pattern.

“Whenever these virus outbreaks occur, the op-ed columns fill up with experts predicting various forms of disaster,” Brunner tells me. “You don’t get published for saying the authorities, especially in China, are doing a good job.”

Brunner says some experts criticize Chinese authorities no matter what they do. “First the Chinese acted too passively, then they acted too aggressively. We are down on China now because it is economically successful.”

So let’s insert a little rationality into the debate. What is the virus and what can be done to contain it?

What is this coronavirus?

While scientists are still unsure, it seems likely that this new coronavirus originated in live animals and jumped to humans through a market in Wuhan, China. Similarly, doctors aren’t certain exactly how the disease is transmitted, but they suspect it’s spread airborne or through contact with mucus.

You may get it from being around people “coughing, sneezing, shaking hands, or even opening a door handle recently touched by an infected person,” says Dr. McLean.

In December, Wuhan doctors began reporting respiratory illness with severe, flu-like symptoms from an unknown virus. As is too often the case in such medical emergencies, local officials downplayed the problem.

Li Wenliang, a doctor in a hospital respiratory department, posted a warning about the new virus in a private chat group. Someone leaked the message, and it was widely circulated online. Dr. Li hadn’t intended to be a whistleblower. Although what he wrote was true, local police detained him for rumor mongering and forced him to recant. In February, he died after being exposed to one of his coronavirus patients.

China’s Supreme Court later vindicated Dr. Li, noting that his warnings should have been taken seriously. Dr. Li has since become a national hero in China.

China is hardly unique in attacking doctors who report embarrassing information. When Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha exposed the high levels of lead in Flint’s water supply, Michigan officials initially accused her of spreading panic.

That doesn’t let China off the hook. China’s socialist system is supposed to allow for constructive criticism of government and Communist Party policies. But frequently, bureaucrats opt to suppress bad medical news, environmental problems, or atrocious factory conditions. China has developed a strong and independent economy, but ordinary Chinese citizens face crackdowns for expressing dissent.

“Local officials in any country never want to acknowledge unpleasant developments,” says Dr. Brunner. “That hesitation in China may well have delayed an earlier response that could have been important.”

Fighting virus on luxury linter

A luxury cruise ship docked in Yokohama, Japan, reveals the difficulties in handling the virus. After some people on board contracted coronavirus, almost 3,700 passengers and crew were quarantined. That action prevented the spread of the virus to Yokohama but also increased the number of infected people on board. Afterward, the number of infected people had more than doubled to 175.

Japan’s health ministry has been unable to test some 3,000 people on board for the virus due to a shortage of test kits. Although confined in luxurious conditions with first-world medical care, some passengers complained they are more likely to get sick by staying on board.

“I do not believe they are containing this epidemic by keeping us quarantined,” Gay Courter told The New York Times. “Something is wrong with the plan.”

Dr. Erica Pan, interim health officer and director of the Division of Communicable Disease Control and Prevention in the Alameda County Public Health Department, says officials have the difficult task of balancing individual rights against public health.

If people infected with coronavirus can spread the disease to others before they show symptoms, she says, “Containment may not work within that enclosed population.”

In other words, quarantines may temporarily make the quarantined people sicker.

China’s response

China faces the same dilemma as Japan, except it’s protecting 1.4 billion people. It’s no surprise that some Chinese criticize their government, which has proportionately fewer medical resources than Japan.

China has taken extreme measures to contain the epidemic. The central government enforced a quarantine on Wuhan, a city of 11 million people. Many people are staying home, going out only for food and emergencies. Travel to and from Wuhan is prohibited. The government built two hospitals in just two weeks in Wuhan, but there still aren’t enough beds and medical supplies.

Some major airlines have canceled flights in and out of China. Factories are closing due to lack of workers and supplies. Major cities such as Beijing and Shenzhen have all but shut down.

The central government plans to gradually restore normal activity after a two-week quarantine period. It will test every individual in Wuhan, isolate those infected, and allow others to return to normal life.

But even if the vast majority of infected people are identified, a few could slip by, and the virus could spread again. Such a massive quarantine requires government transparency so doctors can accurately track the disease. Dr. McLean suspects Chinese officials have been less than transparent.

“I think the epidemic is a lot worse,” he says. “The numbers are a lot higher.”

Scientists say the coronavirus epidemic could evolve in two ways. It could spread outside China and become a global pandemic. Or, like the 2003 SARS epidemic, Dr. Pan says, “we could stop the disease transmission.” In that earlier epidemic, officials were able to isolate affected people, contain the disease spread, and “public health measures worked.” The virus “burned out.”

For all its shortcomings, Dr. Brunner says the massive quarantine in China “was clearly a bold, decisive act that certainly helps protect not only China but the whole world.”

And the world is waiting to see if that bold act bears results.

Reese Erlich’s nationally distributed column, Foreign Correspondent, appears every two weeks. Follow him on Twitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him on Facebook; and visit his webpage.

Foreign Correspondent: Who’s at fault for Cuba’s economic problems?

Innovative chef Alexis Alvarez. Photo by Sandra Vasquez

HAVANA—Chef Alexis Alvarez was in panic mode. He was preparing a gourmet meal for visitors from the United States when the electricity went out. He mostly cooks with natural gas and charcoal, but those won’t power his blender full of organic kale.

So Alexis found a very Cuban solution. He slipped the blender into an old sack, walked over to the nearby hospital that had electricity, plugged in the blender, ran it for 10 seconds, and then left. Presto: a healthy and tasty iced drink.

Innovative Cuban chef Alexis Alvarez. Photo by Sandra Vasquez

Despite the electricity crisis and periodic water shut offs in his town of San Jose, 20 miles southeast of Havana, Alexis managed to produce a delicious meal of seafood soup, eggplant lasagna, fried fish, and roast pork.

Alexis is one of a growing number of food entrepreneurs reinventing Cuban cuisine and expanding the private sector, precisely the kind of person US policy is supposed to benefit.

But he blames the electricity shortages on the 58-year-old US embargo. Last year, for example, the Trump Administration sanctioned Cypriot and Panamanian tankers bringing oil to Cuba’s power plants, which, in turn, cause electricity blackouts.

The US embargo on Cuba, unilaterally imposed in 1962, isn’t supported by any country in the world. For the past 28 years, the U.N. General Assembly has voted overwhelmingly to oppose the embargo.

Alexis also faults Cuban authorities for the periodic shortages of consumer goods, ranging from canned tomatoes to toilet paper. Trucks with enough fuel can’t seem to consistently pick up the goods and deliver them to the right stores.

“It’s bad administration,” he tells me.

But for Alexis and every other Cuban I interviewed, the ultimate villain is Donald Trump.

Cuban economic problems

After the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Cuba was cut off from its main trading partners and Soviet economic subsidies. From 1989-93, the Cuban GDP plunged by 35 percent. By comparison, at the nadir of the US Great Recession in 2007-09, the economy shrank by 4.2 percent.

Over the past 30 years, Cuba instituted a series of policies that try to balance socialism with market reforms. The Cuban government continues to control major industries, maintains free health care and education, and promotes high-quality, subsidized cultural events.

But it also eliminated no-show government jobs and encouraged employment at small businesses such as restaurants and bed and breakfast lodging. Today, the government provides 68 percent of jobs and the private sector 32 percent.

The Cuban economy experienced a relative boom after President Barack Obama regularized diplomatic relations in 2015. US travelers flooded into Cuba, giving a boost to hotels, restaurants, and the entire tourism industry. As recently as  2018, I saw fifty tour buses lined up in Havana to receive US cruise ship passengers.

Relaxation of the embargo also led to US-Cuba cooperation in developing pharmaceutical drugs. For example, New York’s Mt. Sinai Hospital conducted successful human trials for a Cuban lung cancer vaccine.

Trump reverses progress

But by 2019, Trump reversed many of Obama’s administrative changes. He banned US residents from staying in Cuban government hotels, eating in state restaurants, or utilizing government tourism agencies.

Nevertheless,257,000 people from the United States visited Cuba in the first four months of 2019, excluding cruise ship passengers. Travel remains legal to Cuba if visitors stay at privately owned B&Bs, eat at privately owned restaurants, and follow certain other US regulations.

But Trump continues to squeeze the Cuban economy by threatening European banks and corporations doing business with Cuba. For example, Trump has allowed Cuban Americans whose property was nationalized after they fled Cuba in the early 1960s to sue European companies now doing business in those buildings.

Break ties with Venezuela?

The Trump Administration also wants to stop Cuba’s support for the Venezuelan government of Nicolas Maduro. Cuba provides doctors as well as military advisors to Venezuela, and Venezuela ships oil to Cuban refineries. Trump’s policies are aimed at breaking Cuba’s solidarity with Venezuela, says a US reporter based in Havana.

Such pressure “has never worked before,” the reporter tells me, “and it’s not likely to work now. The embargo hits ordinary Cubans—not the government.”

Canadians and Europeans continue to visit Cuba. But the drop in US tourism since the middle of last year means less hard currency to buy foreign goods. Sanctions against third country tankers reduced oil shipments, increased prices at the pump and led to shortages of transport to get food into the cities.

Last July, Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel announced plans to raise state worker salaries, eliminate the dual currency system and encourage provincial self sufficiency in food production. The plans are a work in progress, and their effectiveness remains to be seen.

But one thing is for sure. The US embargo hurts ordinary Cubans while failing to change Cuban government policy.

Foreign Correspondent columnist Reese Erlich has reported from Cuba since 1968. He is author of Dateline Havana: The Real Story of US Policy and the Future of Cuba.Follow him on Twitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him on Facebook; and visit his webpage.

Foreign correspondent: Trump backs down, but Iran conflict continues

Iranians overwhelmingly oppose Trump's policies. Reese Erlich photo

Trump blinked.

After threatening to bomb military and cultural sites in Iran, President Donald Trump has apparently backed down on further escalation in his quasi-war with Iran. He tried to spin his decision as a US victory, claiming his administration had supposedly made America safer by assassinating Iranian Major General Qassem Suleimani.

Iranians overwhelmingly oppose Trump’s policies. Reese Erlich photo

Iran, in response to this killing, fired 22 ballistic missiles at two US bases in Iraq, destroying a helicopter and some buildings but causing no casualties. Iranian authorities had alerted the Iraqi military in advance, which contributed to the lack of deaths.

The bottom line, says Ibrahim Al-Marashi, an associate professor of history at California State University San Marcos, is that Iran was able to strike US military facilities without consequences.

“Trump is just redefining victory despite Iran striking a military base,” Al-Marashi tells me.

While Trump’s decision to de-escalate will save lives in the short run, his actions have alienated tens of millions of people in Iraq and Iran. By a vote of 170-0, the Iraqi parliament called for withdrawal of all foreign troops from its country. Iraq’s acting prime minister, Adil Abdul Mahdi, received a letter from the US military commanders indicating some troops would leave, but the US later disavowed the letter.

The Trump Administration refuses to withdraw its troops, and Trump even threatened sanctions against Iraq if the troops are kicked out. It remains to be seen if Iraqi leaders will continue their push for troop withdrawal.

Millions of Iranians gathered for funeral tributes to Suleimani. Iranians who were protesting corruption and repression just a few months ago were out in the streets fearing a US attack and rallying around the government.

Cyrus, a businessman who attended last year’s protests and this week’s funeral event in Tehran, says the mourners stretched for miles. “It was the largest crowd I ever saw,” he tells me, asking that only his first name be used. “Everyone was angry and wanted revenge.”

Tit for tat

In response to the Trump Administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Iran nuclear accord in 2018, Iran has been stepping up retaliatory measures. In recent months, Iraqi militias allied with Iran launched attacks on US troops stationed in Iraq. Then, on December 29, the Pentagon bombed two militia bases, killing 25 people and wounding dozens. In response, Iraqis stormed the US Embassy in Baghdad. On January 2, US drones assassinated Suleimani and several militia leaders.

Despite a public statementthat it does not seek further escalation, the Trump administration may yet see more retaliation, according to a high-level Iranian government source. So far, he tells me, Iran has focused on military targets, but he notes that Suleimani has “millions of followers all across the region from Yemen to Lebanon who will be seeking revenge from the United States. Iran cannot control them.”

“Trump’s assets all around the world will be considered as legitimate,” says the source, who didn’t want his name used for security reasons.

If pro-Iranian groups started blowing up Trump office towers or launching cyber attacks on his hotels, Al-Marashi says, it would put the administration in an awkward position.

“Would the American public tolerate US soldiers defending Trump hotels?” he asks. “It would put Trump in a bind.”

War under false pretenses

Trump claims the United States had to kill Suleimani because he was “plotting imminent and sinister attacks” on US forces. So far, his administration has provided no public proof of this assertion, and Al-Marashi says Suleimani and his allies posed no more of a threat on January 2 than on any previous day.

“This seemed like an impulsive decision to retaliate for the storming of the US embassy,” he says. “If there was a clear and present danger, not only the American public but the international community would have been told.”

“The United States has a long history of lying about starting wars,” notes Raed Jarrar, an Iraqi-born human rights activist and writer based in Washington, D.C. “The United States exaggerates threats and then claims national security for the purpose of circumventing Congress.”

In my opinion, Trump’s words “imminent and sinister attacks” will go down in history with “weapons of mass destruction” in the annals of major presidential lies.

Ironically, according to Iraqi Prime Minister Mahdi, at least part of Suleimani’s Baghdad visit was diplomatic. He was delivering a message from Iranian leaders in an effort to lower tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Suleimani

The Trump Administration has labeled Suleimani a terrorist and the Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organization. Both Republican and Democratic presidents claim Suleimani was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans soldiers in Iraq, a blatant falsehood, as explained by professor Stephen Zunes in The Progressive.

But many Iraqis hate Suleimani, because of the brutal tactics used by Iran-allied militias. Starting last October, tens of thousands of Iraqis poured into the streets to protest unemployment, corruption, and Iranian meddling in Iraqi affairs. Iranian-allied militias deployed snipers, who killed dozens of demonstrators.

In another incident, says activist Jarrar, the Iranian trained militia Kataeb Hezbollah attacked demonstrators gathered in Tahrir Square. “The Iraqi army and police stepped aside, and they shot demonstrators,” Jarrar tells me. “Demonstrators later found boxes of bullets made in Iran.”

But many Iranians see Suleimani as a hero who led the fight against ISIS terrorism and who protected holy Shia Muslim shrines in Iraq and Syria. An October poll showed Suleimani was the most popular political leader in Iran, with an 82 percent approval rating.

Suleimani has entered Iran’s pantheon of martyrs. “A martyr is much more dangerous for the Americans than a live person,” says businessman Cyrus. “Mothers will teach their sons to become another Suleimani. Millions will fight the arrogance of the US system.”

Cyrus supported last November’s protests against unemployment and corruption. “The yellow vests in France demonstrated for one year,” he says. “Why not here?”

Cyrus later opposed the demonstrations when they turned violent. “But,” he adds, “everybody supported the demands of protestors. If you didn’t, you didn’t know the situation in Iran.”

As of this writing, the tit-for-tat military attacks have subsided. But the underlying conflict is far from resolved. Trump seems intent on forcing regime change in Iran. Iranians aren’t going for it.

Reese Erlich’s nationally distributed column, Foreign Correspondent, appears every two weeks. He is author of The Iran Agenda Today: The Real Story Inside Iran and What’s Wrong with US Policy. Follow him on  Twitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him on Facebook; and visit his webpage.