Belated hurricane relief headed to battered Caribbean islands

Haiti storm victims

United Nations relief agencies are heading up a global mission to bring food, shelter and construction materials to Caribbean islands battered by super storm Sandy last week -- a belated response by the world body whose New York headquarters and staff were themselves hard hit by the deluge.

After a three-day closure amid the torrential rains and disrupted power, communications and transportation, U.N. agencies have swung into action to organize emergency aid to Haiti and coordinate the dispatch of relief supplies throughout the Caribbean.

More than 1.2 million Haitians are facing "food insecurity" and at least 15,000 homes were destroyed when the huge storm's drenching periphery lashed the world's poorest nation, where about 350,000 were still homeless and sheltering in tents nearly three years after the devastating earthquake of January 2010.

A yearlong drought and damage from Hurricane Isaac in August had already taken their toll on food production in Haiti and Sandy has significantly worsened the crisis, Johan Peleman, head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Haiti, told U.N. Radio in an interview.

"With this new tropical storm, we fear that a great deal of the harvest which was ongoing in the south of the country may have been destroyed completely," Peleman said.

Many of the rugged dirt roads that provide the only access to storm victims in Haiti's mountainous interior have been rendered impassible by the torrential rains of the last week, Peleman said.

In New York, U.N. officials said they had reports of at least 54 Haitians killed as a result of the storm.

At least 11 people were reportedly killed in Cuba, where the storm damaged or destroyed 188,000 homes and inflicted severe damage on about 245,000 acres of the vital sugar crop in the eastern part of the island, a U.N. report estimated Wednesday.

The opposition Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation appealed to the government of President Raul Castro to allow foreign relief agencies to bring food and supplies to the stricken island. An array of religious and nongovernmental organizations, including Catholic Relief Services and Outreach Aid to the Americas, announced relief missions to Cuba, according to InterAction, an alliance of U.S.-based agencies. The Russian Ministry for Emergency Situations dispatched three plane-loads of aid for Cuba on Thursday, the Itar-Tass news agency reported.

Storm-related deaths were also reported in Jamaica, the Bahamas and the Dominican Republic, with the U.N. reporting at least 71 killed across the Caribbean in Sandy's wake.


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-- Carol J. Williams in Los Angeles

Photo: Residents make their way through the flooded streets of La Plaine, in northwest Haiti. Credit: Carl Juste / Miami Herald

Gambia, Iraq executions buck worldwide abolitionist trend

Protesters in Senegal denouncing Gambian executions
Human rights advocates the world over have been shocked and outraged by Gambia's first executions in 27 years and an escalation in hangings in Iraq that has already sent 91 to their deaths this year.

GlobalFocusThe rash of executions in the two countries -- nine in Gambia last week and 21 in Iraq on Monday alone -- are particularly disturbing for the targeting of prisoners convicted on what appear to be politically instigated charges in secretive and unfair trials, international law experts said.

Yet as lamentable as the recent death row purges may be to those who monitor and censure human rights abuses, they are in stark contrast to a global trend toward abolition of the death penalty and de facto moratoriums on executions in an ever-larger number of countries.

About two-thirds of the 196 countries tracked by Amnesty International  have renounced the death penalty in law or in practice, the London-based rights champions calculate. That has grown from only 16 countries that had outlawed executions before Amnesty launched its global campaign to eradicate the death penalty in 1977.

"Even in countries like China, while we don’t know how many they have executed, we do know that they have reduced the number of crimes that can be punished by death and they have reduced the number of people executed in recent years dramatically," Christof Heyns, assigned by the United Nations to monitor extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, said in a telephone interview from his home in Pretoria, South Africa.

On behalf of the world body's Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Heyns delivered a message to Gambian President Yahya Jammeh this week to "strongly condemn" the autocrat's proclaimed intent to execute all 48 death row inmates in the tiny West African country by mid-September. Nine were executed last week, Jammeh's government confirmed Monday, and the remaining 39 condemned prisoners have been moved from their cells to the execution site.

Heyns' letter demanded that Gambia refrain from any further executions, calling last week's deaths "a major step backwards for the country, and for the protection of the right to life in the world as a whole.” The U.N. agency rebuke joined others from Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, European nations and an expression of "great concern" from the United States, which itself ranks high on annual rights agencies' lists of countries with the most executions.

Gambia had last executed a prisoner in 1985, and had adhered to the practice increasingly prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa of reducing the list of crimes for which the death penalty can be applied as well as the number of capital sentences, noted Sandra L. Babcock, a law professor at Northwestern University and founder of its Center for International Human Rights.

Babcock attributes the Gambia executions to "the whim of an unpredictable and, by all accounts, unbalanced dictator," and she sees little threat of Jammeh's crackdown inspiring emulation.

"It's an exception to the general rule that once a nation heads down that path of refusing to carry out executions, that it leads to abolition as a matter of law over time," said Babcock, whose center maintains a database on the Death Penalty Worldwide.

Iraq's mounting zeal for executions is the more disturbing, Babcock said, as many of the 1,000-plus condemned Iraqis were convicted of treason or terrorism, often "thinly disguised justification for prosecuting political opponents."

Iraq has long featured in the dubious ranks of the Top Five countries carrying out the most executions each year. In 2011, China led Amnesty's list with executions estimated at more than 1,000, but it also eliminated the death penalty for 13 crimes that previously could draw the ultimate punishment. Iran acknowledged executing at least 360 people, followed by Saudi Arabia with 82 reported executions, Iraq with 68 and the United States 43.

Despite the rise in executions in some of the most active "retentionist" nations, as the rights groups refer to those that haven't signed on to the international covenant that defines the death penalty as a human rights violation, there are positive trends even in areas where the death penalty long enjoyed broad public support, the law experts said.

The Philippines abolished capital punishment six years ago, and all republics of the former Soviet Union except Belarus have renounced the death penalty or ceased carrying it out. Malaysia and Singapore are reconsidering whether all drug-trafficking crimes should be death-penalty eligible, and China is conducting a review of all death sentences, Babcock said. All of Europe is abolitionist, and most of Latin America -- with the glaring exception of the Caribbean states -- have ceased executions.

The only two highly developed democracies that continue to execute are the United States and Japan, the rights groups note. And abolitionists are regaining traction in Japan that was lost 17 years ago when the Aum Shinrikyo cult attacked Tokyo subway riders with sarin gas, killing 13 and poisoning 6,000.

Moving the United States into the execution-free category is going to take time because of the 50 separate state penal codes and popular support for the death penalty in some regions, Babcock said.

But she pointed out that the rising cost of keeping the death penalty on the books in states like California, with 729 on death row, is beginning to make inroads with death penalty supporters who have been unmoved by the moral arguments against the state taking lives.


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 Photo: Protesters gathered outside the Gambian Embassy in Senegal on Thursday to demand President Yahya Jammeh halt the mass execution of prisoners. Two of those executed by Gambia last week were Senegalese, including a woman. The banner reads "Gambia. Stop the reign of fear." Credit: Seyllou / AFP/Getty Images

U.S. looks to Belize for alleged ties to Sinaloa drug cartel

MEXICO CITY -- The U.S. government’s effort to dismantle Mexico’s powerful Sinaloa drug cartel is a war with multiple fronts. The latest is the tiny tourist jewel of Belize.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control announced it was freezing the assets of three Belize residents alleged to be drug traffickers and “key associates” of the Mexican drug trafficking group. The Treasury Department has also prohibited U.S. citizens from doing business with the suspects or their companies.

The focus on Belize — a polyglot, 327,000-resident wedge of the Yucatan just south of Cancun — is the latest evidence of the overwhelming influence of the south-to-north movement of drugs through Central America.

The U.S. government has estimated that up to 90% of the 700 metric tons of cocaine headed from South America to the U.S. wends its way through Central America, and every nation in the region is on the U.S. list of “major drug transit or major illicit drug producing countries.”

Belize, along with El Salvador, was added to that U.S. “blacklist” of 22 nations in September in a presidential memorandum that noted numerous recent drug and weapons seizures on the Mexican side of the Mexico-Belize border, as well as the presence of Mexican cartels including the Zeta gang, the ruthless rival to the Sinaloa cartel.

The three suspects targeted Tuesday are John Zabaneh, described by U.S. officials as a “critical figure” with ties to Colombian suppliers and Mexican buyers; his nephew Dion Zabaneh, and a “close associate” named Daniel Moreno.

The Treasury Department also designated as off-limits a number of companies either owned or controlled by Moreno or John Zabaneh, including a building contractor, a resort and marina company, a pharmaceutical firm, a supermarket company, and a banana farm called Mayan King Ltd.

The bigger target, however, is the Sinaloa cartel, and its billionaire fugitive capo, Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman. Treasury officials say the Belizeans are associates of Guzman and other members of the cartel, the most powerful organized crime group in Mexico and perhaps the most powerful narcotics ring in the world.

“John Zabaneh’s drug trafficking activities and his organization’s ties to Colombian sources of supply and Mexican buyers make him a critical figure in the narcotics trade,” Adam J. Szubin, director of the Office of Foreign Assets Control, said in a statement. “By designating Zabaneh, OFAC is disrupting those activities and continuing its efforts, alongside those of our law enforcement partners, to expose operatives of Chapo Guzman and the Sinaloa Cartel, including their businesses.”

The Treasury Department has the ability to “designate” foreign businesspeople with suspected drug ties under the Kingpin Act, which was signed in to law by President Clinton in 1999. Since then, U.S. officials have designated more than 1,100 businesses and individuals linked to 97 drug kingpins, according to government figures.


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Taxes? In the Cayman Islands? New budget could tax foreigners


The Cayman Islands have long been known as a paradise boasting brilliant blue water, pristine sand -- and absolutely no corporate or personal income tax. That last perk has made them famous as a global tax haven, luring financial companies and investments.

But now the economic downturn has hit paradise too. Tightened belts on the Caribbean islands have led Premier McKeeva Bush to go where the Caymans have never gone before, proposing a 10% payroll tax on foreign workers who make more than $20,000 a year.

Dodging the T-word, Bush called his plan a “community enhancement fee” solely for foreigners who hold work permits, saying the islands would lose at least 500 public workers without it.

To keep foreigners keen on doing business in the islands, Bush said, foreign employees wouldn’t need to chip into the pension system, as they do now.

“Fiscal responsibility has always been the hallmark of my government and always will be,” Bush said Wednesday in a lengthy statement announcing the plan.

The idea has spurred a fervent opposition campaign from both Caymanians and expats who contend that such a tax would drive away foreign business and investment. Some complained it was wrong to impose the tax only on foreigners; others argued that the high cost of living and lower salaries in the islands made a new tax unthinkable for anyone and warned of a slippery slope.

“Instead of making a difficult decision in an election year and finding other ways to reduce expenditure, the government will take what they mistakenly feel is the ‘easy’ option and tax those that are not on the electoral list,” one column on the Cayman News Service website said.

Tax opponents are planning a protest Monday before Bush holds an informational meeting.  A newly created Facebook group called Caymanians & Expats United Against Taxation  had more than 8,800 members as of Friday afternoon. But not all posts on the web page backed its motto.

“McKeeva is doing what he sees as the only recourse to stimulate revenue! Would you Caymanians prefer he tax us all? Wake up!” islander Marilyn Whittaker wrote in defense of the proposal.

Gov. Duncan Taylor cautioned the budget was still in the works, but said the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office had insisted that the islands balance their budget with both savings and new revenue. As a British overseas territory, the Cayman Islands must have their budget approved. The foreign office has yet to weigh in publicly on the plan.


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Photo: Rum Point on Grand Cayman Island. Credit: Cayman Islands Department of Tourism

Must Reads: Small business, bombs and the post-bimbo era

Nail salon in Cuba

This week, our reporters brought you tales from Tahrir Square in Egypt, a nail salon in Cuba and a bomb-making workshop in Syria. Here are our picks for five stories you shouldn't miss from this week:

Intrigue enters Chinese politics

Ready for post-bimbo era in Italy

Outgunned Syria rebels turn to homemade bombs

In Egypt's Tahrir Square, die-hard revolutionaries linger

Yes, they're abierto: Cubans open their doors to small business

-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: Cuba is slowly moving toward allowing private enterprise. Olga Lidia Garcia owns and operates a nail salon on a busy street in Havana. Credit: Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times

Fidel Castro's older sister dies


REPORTING FROM MEXICO CITY -- The older sister of Cuban leaders Fidel and Raul Castro has died, news reports from Havana and Miami say. Angela Castro was 88.

She is the first of the seven Castro siblings to die and, as the Associated Press put it, her death suggests the "looming mortality" of her more famous brothers.

The Miami-based website quoted another sister, Juanita, who lives in Miami, as saying Angela died Tuesday morning, quietly, in a Havana clinic where she had been in declining health for some time. There was to be a funeral on Thursday, the website said.

As of this writing, there has been no mention of the Castro family loss in Cuba's state-controlled media nor an announcement from Fidel or Raul.

Fidel, who upon serious illness handed the government over to Raul nearly six years ago, is 85. Raul is 80.


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Photo: Cuban leaders Fidel Castro, left, and his brother Raul confer in parliament in Havana in this file photo from 2003. Credit: AFP/Getty Images


Haitian Prime Minister Garry Conille resigns

  Haitian Prime Minister Garry Conille
REPORTING FROM MEXICO CITY -- Haiti's political instability deepened Friday with the sudden resignation of Prime Minister Garry Conille, who took the job less than five months ago.

Conille was reportedly under enormous pressure from President Michel Martelly to quit. The two clashed over numerous issues, including the handling of millions of dollars in contracts for repair of damage from the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake.

Conille, a gynecologist who also served on Bill Clinton's Haiti reconstruction board, was Martelly's third choice to head the government. The first two were rejected by Haiti's Parliament. It was not yet clear who Martelly, a former pop singer, would nominate to replace Conille.

Haitians and others worried that Conille's departure will create a political vacuum as the country continues to struggle to recover from the quake and emerge from endemic poverty.

The United Nations peacekeeping mission in Haiti warned that political crisis threatened to "undermine the proper functioning of institutions and the democratic process" (link in French).


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Photo: Haitian Prime Minister Garry Conille speaks during his swearing-in ceremony in October in Port-au-Prince. Credit: Jean Jacques Augustin / European Pressphoto Agency 


Website helps immigrants compare fees to send money home

REPORTING FROM SAN SALVADOR—Immigrants from Central America and the Dominican Republic can go online to compare the cost of sending money from the United States to relatives back home. is a new service that shows how much different transfer services cost in five remittance-sending hubs in the United States: California, Florida, New York, Washington, D.C., and Massachusetts. Fees are calculated based on transfer amounts of $200 and $500.

The main sponsor of the initiative is the Center for Latin American Monetary Studies, a grouping of regional banks, along with support from the World Bank and Multilalateral Investment Fund of the Inter-American Development Bank, or IDB.

"This initiative will help the Hispanic community to better understand the costs and options available before deciding how and with whom to send the money," Paloma Monroy, a remittance specialist from the center, said in a statement this week. She said the tool "will create more transparency in this market, contributing to reduced costs."

Continue reading »

U.N.: Haitian ex-dictator should face human rights charges


The United Nations says former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier should face charges for human rights abuses on his watch.

“We are extremely disappointed at reports that Mr. Duvalier may not be charged with any human rights crimes, despite numerous complaints by victims to the prosecutor,” Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in a statement released by the world body.

Colville said serious human rights violations, including torture, rape and extrajudicial killings, had been extensively documented by Haitian and international human rights organizations during his reign.

A Haitian judge on Monday recommended that Duvalier, who is also known as Baby Doc, be tried only on corruption charges, saying that the statute of limitations had run out on any human rights crimes.

Duvalier returned unexpectedly to Haiti last year, stirring up memories of his repressive rule, which stretched from 1971 to 1986. The Times' Tracy Wilkinson reported from Haiti last year:

The younger Duvalier's regime was characterized by brutal repression of opponents enforced by the notorious Tonton Macoutes secret police and the excessive lifestyle of the first family, who allegedly embezzled tens of millions of dollars. The chubby, baby-faced Duvalier lived as a playboy until marrying extravagant divorcee Michele Bennett Pasquet, who enjoyed the high life and alienated Haiti's masses.

With hunger and poverty deepening, protests against the regime mounted in the early 1980s, along with ever-bloodier government crackdowns and international condemnation. The rebellion, along with pressure from the Reagan administration, drove Duvalier from power in February 1986. A U.S. Air Force jet took him and his wife to France, where they lived in exile on the Riviera until their divorce in 1993.


'Baby Doc' Duvalier returns to a tense Haiti

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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: Ousted Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier speaks at a news conference Jan. 21, 2011, in Petion Ville, Puerto Principe, Haiti. Credit: Hector Retamal / Agence France-Presse

Map: Where all the junk in the ocean ends up


If you read this story by Ken Ellingwood about the deluge of trash on a Mexican beach, you may be wondering: Just where does all the junk that goes into the ocean end up?

Nikolai Maximenko is trying to answer that question. Trash gathers into "garbage patches" that are too diffuse to spot from a satellite. Scientists have encountered several areas where trash collects in the ocean, but nobody is sure where all of it is.

Maximenko, a senior researcher with the International Pacific Research Center, led a team that created a computer model based on ocean currents to map out where those patches will pop up a decade after trash first enters the oceans:


What’s in that trash? For decades, the International Coastal Cleanup has been keeping an eye on the junk that turns up on beaches. The biggest offender was cigarettes and cigarette filters, which made up 25% of the trash it tracked between 1989 and 2007.

Second place went to paper and plastic bags, which made up 9% of the mess, closely followed by beverage lids. Check out this report to find more data, including how ocean trash differs in different parts of the world.


Dark tides, ill winds

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Plague of plastic chokes the seas

Photo: Researchers Matt Durham and Miriam Goldstein encounter a "ghost net" with tangled rope, plastic and biological organisms. The survey studied the Pacific Garbage Patch, 1,000 miles off the California coast. Credit: Mario Aguilera/Scripps Institution of Oceanography


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