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U.S. to Begin Talks With Cuba to Open Embassy, Normalize Full Diplomatic Relations

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President Obama is set to announce a broad new range of changes to the U.S. Government's policies toward Cuba including talks to normalize full diplomatic relations and open an embassy, the AP reports.

The announcement was preceded Wednesday morning by the freeing of U.S. contractor Alan Gross, held in Cuba since 2009, CNN adds:

Gross' "humanitarian" release by Cuba was accompanied by a separate spy swap, the officials said. Cuba also freed a U.S. intelligence source who has been jailed in Cuba for more than 20 years, although authorities did not identify that person for security reasons. The U.S. released three Cuban intelligence agents convicted of espionage in 2001.

President Obama is also set to announce a broad range of diplomatic and regulatory measures in what officials called the most sweeping change in U.S. policy toward Cuba since the 1961 embargo was imposed.

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CNBC adds:

Obama plans to overhaul Cuba's policy while Cuba plans to free 53 political prisoners and to allow U.S. debit and credit cards, Dow Jones reported.

General tourism will still not be allowed but some travel restrictions will be eased for the purposes of making it easier for Americans to do business there.

Some of the other changes, according to CNN:

In an effort to boost the nascent Cuban private sector, the President will also allow expanded commercial sales and exports of goods and services to Cuba, particularly building materials for entrepreneurs and private residences, and allow greater business training, as well as permit greater communications hardware and services to go to the island.

Other announced changes permit U.S. and Cuban banks to build relationships and travelers to use credit and debit cards. U.S. travelers will be allowed to import up to $400 worth of goods from Cuba, including $100 in alcohol and tobacco -- even Cuban cigars. Remittances by Americans to their families back in Cuba will also be increased to approximately $2,000 per quarter.

While only Congress can lift the decades-long full embargo, the President appears to be extending many measures which are within his power.

Many, of course, will be asking how the human rights violations of the Castro regime will be addressed during these talks. Just this week, on Human Rights Day, more than 100 and reportedly up to 240 political activists were arrested throughout the island.

Obama is set to speak about Gross and Cuba at 12 ET today. At the same time Cuban President Raul Castro will be giving a press conference about the policies in Havana.

A CNN report on Alan Gross, AFTER THE JUMP...

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Head Of U.S. Agency For International Development Says Human Rights 'Essential' In Fight Against HIV/AIDS

Screen Shot 2014-12-07 at 1.01.30 PMRajiv Shah, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, linked human rights to the fight against HIV/AIDS during remarks he made during a World AIDS Day forum reports the Washington BladeThe forum highlighted a USAID-backed initiative through President Obama's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) to combat the global epidemic among gay men, transgender people and other affected groups. 

Said Shah:

"Getting to where we need to go to a genuine AIDS-free generation will perhaps require even more determination, innovation and capacity to link the fight against HIV and AIDS to a broad range of critical issues, including the very basic and unassailable fight for human rights for all individuals.

"The only way to achieve the end goal of an AIDS-free generation is to more systematically embrace and empower this broader range of partners in this fight."

George Ayala, the executive director of the Global Forum on MSM and HIV, said that the U.S., Canada, Russia and Australia are among 61 countries with laws that criminalize people who have the virus. Lisa Carty, the director of the U.S. Liaison Office of U.N. AIDS, added that an estimated 80 countries have a policy or statute that, "Is a barrier to the communities we care about to get the services they need."

The State Department announced on Monday a $210 million public-private partnership with Bill and Melinda Gates and Nike Foundations through PEPFAR that is designed to lower new HIV infections in girls and women in 10 countries; an additional $116.5 million is going toward African nations' healthcare systems as well. However, the Associate Press reported that USAID hired nearly a dozen men from three Latin American countries to undermine the Cuban government through an HIV prevention workshop, among other means. U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), co-chair of the Congressional HIV/AIDS Caucus, expressed dismay about the actions of USAID in the matter.

Screen Shot 2014-12-07 at 1.05.05 PMSaid Lee:

"I am appalled by recent reports that the U.S. government orchestrated and funded clandestine democracy promotion efforts under the guise of public health and civic programs.

"I am particularly concerned by the revelation that HIV-prevention programs were used as a cover. This blatant deception undermines U.S. credibility abroad and endangers U.S. government supported public health programs, which have saved millions of lives in recent years around the world." 

Shah made no references to Cuba in his speech. The head of international development continued to discuss helping marginalized populations and linked human rights to national security.

Said Shah:

"Efforts that we will discuss today and take forward will help not only address HIV in marginalized populations, but will help society after society through that experience recognize that the universal reach of human rights is in our collective social and national security interest."


Mariela Castro Votes Against Cuban Government, Voices Support For Transgender Rights

 

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Mariela Castro, the daughter of Cuba’s president Raul Castro and niece of Fidel Castro, has made the first recorded vote against the government in a show of support for LGBT people, reports NPR.

Castro was behind the sixth International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association for Latin America and the Caribbean Regional Conference held in Cuba earlier this year.

The proposed update to Cuba's expansive labor code included explicit protections based on sexual orientation. However, Castro said that because it didn't also specify protections for people based on their gender identity and HIV status, it was inconsistent with her beliefs.

It is thought to be the first time that a government bill has been voted against.

However, according to LGBTI News, Baruch College Latin American studies professor Ted Henken said that Castro’s vote “is more a sign of what Mariela can get away with than a sign of what your everyday parliamentarian can get away with.”


Leader of Russian Vigilante Group That Tortured Gays Sentenced To Five Years In Penal Colony: VIDEO

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Maxim Sergeyevich Martsinkevich, the leader of the virulently homophobic Russian vigilante group Occupy Pedophilia has been sentenced to five years in a penal colony, reports LGBTQ Nation.

Martsinkevich rose to international attention in 2013 when Occupy Pedophilia began posting videos documenting a campaign of violent attacks on gay men who had been lured to meetings using the social network VK.com.

In many of the videos, Martsinkevich is seen forcibly shaving victims’ heads, pouring urine on victims and forcing them to perform sex acts with objects.

The group claimed that the men they attacked were seeking to have sex with boys.

Amid international outrage, the prosecutor’s office in what was then Sevastopol, Ukraine sought to arrest Martsinkevich for crimes against a young male adult citizen of Ukraine. Martsinkevich fled to Cuba last December but was arrested and extradited for breaking Cuban immigration law in January.

Nine other members of the group are currently awaiting trial for allegedly “committing crimes under several articles of the Criminal Code,” including organization of an extremist community and membership in an extremist community, beatings and other acts of violence, the threat of murder and causing grievous bodily harm, intentional infliction of moderate bodily harm, torture and robbery.”

Martsinkevich was convicted of inciting and fomenting cases of extremism by posting videos on VK.com that contained racial slurs and extremist opinions on Russia’s state of the union. However, videos containing anti-gay statements and homophobic abuse were not included in the case.

Watch a disturbing BBC report on Occupy Pedophilia, AFTER THE JUMP...

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Cuba to Host International LGBT Conference Despite Criticism Over Human Rights Violations

ILGALAC

Next week Cuba will host the sixth International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association for Latin America and the Caribbean (ILGALAC) Regional Conference.

This will be the Communist country’s first time to host an international LGBT conference, a realization that isn’t sitting well with some who feel the conference shouldn’t take place in a country with such a lengthy record of human rights violations.

The Washington Blade reports:

CastroMariela Castro Espín, daughter of Cuban President Raúl Castro who is the director of Cuba’s National Center for Sexual Education (CENESEX,) is president of the local committee that organized the ILGALAC conference.

Mariela Castro did not return the Washington Blade’s request for comment. CENESEX’s website prominently features information about the ILGALAC conference that includes a preliminary agenda.

“As the host country for the sixth ILGALAC Regional Conference, Cuba is not exempt from the problems of the region’s LGBTI communities,” states the organization. “The humanistic nature of the Cuban Revolution has focused on the human being in his teleological purposes since its beginning. Although the Cuban LGBTI movement does not have the organization of other international movements, the fight against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in the country is now evident with more impact and achievements.”

Late last year, the Cuban parliament amended the country’s labor law to ban anti-gay employment discrimination. Many LGBT advocates also credit Cuba’s condom distribution campaign and sexual education cirriculum with producing one of the world’s lowest HIV rates.

Still, other argue Cuba’s less-than-stellar human rights record cannot be ignored

“Hosting a conference on LGBT rights is just another farcical attempt by the Cuban regime to pretend they care about anyone’s rights,” U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) told the Blade in a statement. “The sad reality is that the Cuban people are harassed, beaten and bullied for having a point of view that differs from the regime’s. This desperate move to seem tolerant does not even come close to obscuring the repressive reality on the island.

Ignacio Estrada Cepera, founder of the Cuban League Against AIDS, noted that the Cuban government forcibly quarantined people with HIV/AIDS in state-run sanitaria until 1993. Other LGBT activists in the country point to the forced labor camps to which the government sent more than 25,000 gay men and others deemed unfit for military service during the 1960s. 


Leader of Russian Vigilante Group That Tortures Gay Teens Arrested in Cuba: VIDEO

MartsinkevichMaxim Martsinkevich, the leader of the homophobic vigilante group "Occupy Paedophilia" that has lured and tortured a number of gay teens in Russia before posting its exploits to social media, has been on the lam for several months now.

Martsinkevich most recently turned up in Cuba, and now RIA Novosti reports that he has been arrested on an international warrant:

More widely known under his nickname of Tesak, or machete, Martsinkevich was arrested in absentia by a Russian court last month on extremism charges.

Martsinkevich said during a January 8 interview that the criminal charges against him were orchestrated by Russia’s “pedo-lobby,” and that he did not intend to return to Russia, according to Russian tabloid Life News that has close links to the security services...

In a January 9 post on his website, Martsinkevich wrote that he had flown to Cuba from the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, via the German city of Frankfurt...

The violent and dangerous exploits of Martsinkevich and "Occupy Pedophilia" and similar vigilante groups finally hit the mainstream media yesterday in a new must-watch CNN segment produced before Martsinkevich's arrest.

Watch it, AFTER THE JUMP...

Martinskevich

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