Raul Castro confirms he’s resigning, ending long era in Cuba

HAVANA | Raul Castro said Friday he is resigning as head of Cuba’s Communist Party, ending an era of formal leadership by he and his brother Fidel Castro that began with the 1959 revolution.

The 89-year-old Castro made the announcement Friday in a speech at the opening of the Eighth congress of the ruling party, the only one allowed on the island.

He said he was retiring with the sense of having “fulfilled his mission and confident in the future of the fatherland.”

Castro didn’t say who he would endorse as his successor as first secretary of the Communist Party. But he previously indicated that he favors yielding control to 60-year-old Miguel Diaz-Canel, who succeeded him as president in 2018 and is the standard bearer of a younger generation of loyalists who have been pushing an economic opening without touching Cuba’s one-party system.

His retirement means that for the first time in more than six decades Cubans won’t have a Castro formally guilding their affairs, and it comes at a difficult time, with many on the island anxious about what lies ahead.

The coronavirus pandemic, painful financial reforms and restrictions imposed by the Trump administration have battered the economy, which shrank 11% last year as a result of a collapse in tourism and remittances. Long food lines and shortages have brought back echoes of the “special period” that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.

Discontent has been fueled by the spread of the internet and growing inequality.

Much of the debate inside Cuba is focused on the pace of reform, with many complaining that the so-called “historic generation” represented by Castro has been too slow to open the economy.

In January, Diaz-Canel finally pulled the trigger on a plan approved two congresses ago to unify the island’s dual currency system, giving rise to fears of inflation. He also threw the doors open to a broader range of private enterprise — a category long banned or tightly restricted — permitting Cubans to legally operate many sorts of self-run businesses from their homes.

This year’s congress is expected to focus on unfinished reforms to overhaul state-run enterprises, attract foreign investment and provide more legal protection to private business activities.

The Communist Party is made up of 700,000 activists and is tasked in Cuba’s constitution with directing the affairs of the nation and society.

Fidel Castro, who led the revolution that drove dictator Fulgencio Batista from power in 1959, formally became head of the party in 1965, about four years after officially embracing socialism.

He quickly absorbed the old party under his control and was the country’s unquestioned leader until falling ill in 2006 and in 2008 handing over the presidency to his younger brother Raul, who had fought alongside him during the revolution.

Raul succeeded him as head of the party in 2011. Fidel Castro died in 2016.

Iran starts enriching uranium to 60%, its highest level ever

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates | Iran began enriching uranium Friday to its highest-ever purity that edges Tehran close to weapons-grade levels, attempting to pressure negotiators in Vienna amid talks on restoring its nuclear deal with world powers after an attack on its main enrichment site.

A top official said only a few grams an hour of uranium gas would be enriched up to 60% purity — triple the level it once did but at a quantity far lower than what the Islamic Republic could produce. Iran also is enriching at an above-ground facility at its Natanz nuclear site already visited by international inspectors, not deep within its underground halls hardened to withstand airstrikes.

The narrow scope of the new enrichment provides Iran with a way to quickly de-escalate if it choses, experts say, but time is narrowing. An Iranian presidential election looms on the horizon as Tehran already is threatening to limit international inspections. Israel, suspected over carrying out Sunday’s sabotage at Natanz, also could act again amid a long-running shadow war between the two Middle East rivals.

Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, Iran’s parliament speaker, announced the higher enrichment on Twitter.

“The young and God-believing Iranian scientists managed to achieve a 60% enriched uranium product,” Qalibaf said. “I congratulate the brave nation of Islamic Iran on this success. The Iranian nation’s willpower is miraculous and can defuse any conspiracy.”

The head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, the country’s civilian nuclear arm, later acknowledged the move to 60%. Ali Akbar Salehi told Iranian state television the centrifuges now produce 9 grams an hour, but that would drop to 5 grams an hour in the coming days.

“Any enrichment level that we desire is in our reach at the moment and we can do it at any time we want,” Salehi said.

It wasn’t clear why the first announcement came from Qalibaf, a hard-line former leader in the paramilitary Revolutionary Guard already named as a potential presidential candidate in Iran’s upcoming June election.

While 60% is higher than any level Iran previously enriched uranium, it is still lower than weapons-grade levels of 90%. Iran had been enriching up to 20% — and even that was a short technical step to weapons grade. The deal limited Iran’s enrichment to 3.67%.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, which monitors Iran’s nuclear program, did not respond to a request for comment. Earlier this week, it sent its inspectors to Natanz and confirmed Iran was preparing to begin 60% enrichment at an above-ground facility at the site.

Israel, which has twice bombed Mideast countries to stop their nuclear programs, plans to hold a meeting of its top security officials Sunday over the Iranian announcement. Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi called Iran a threat while on a trip Friday to Cyprus.

“Israel is determined to defend itself against any attempt to harm its sovereignty or citizens, and will do whatever it takes to prevent this radical and anti-Semitic regime from acquiring nuclear weapons,” Ashkenazi said.

Iran insists its nuclear program is peaceful, though the West and the IAEA say Tehran had an organized military nuclear program up until the end of 2003. An annual U.S. intelligence report released Tuesday maintained the American assessment that “Iran is not currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons-development activities that we judge would be necessary to produce a nuclear device.”

Iran previously had said it could use uranium enriched up to 60% for nuclear-powered ships. However, the Islamic Republic currently has no such ships in its navy.

The threat of higher enrichment by Iran already had drawn criticism from the U.S. and three European nations in the deal — France, Germany and the United Kingdom. On Friday, European Union spokesman Peter Stano called Iran’s decision “a very worrisome development.”

“There is no credible explanation or civilian justification for such an action on the side of Iran,” Stano said. The Vienna talks aim to “make sure that we go back from such steps that bring Iran further away from delivering on its commitments and obligations.”

Diplomats reconvened Friday in Vienna. After talks Thursday, Chinese negotiator Wang Qun called for doing “away with all disruptive factors by moving forward as swiftly as we can on the work of negotiations, especially by zeroing in on sanction lifting.”

The 2015 nuclear deal, which former President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the U.S. from in 2018, prevented Iran from stockpiling enough high-enriched uranium to be able to pursue a nuclear weapon if it chose in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.

The weekend attack at Natanz was initially described only as a blackout in the electrical grid feeding both its above-ground workshops and underground enrichment halls — but later Iranian officials began calling it an attack.

Alireza Zakani, the hard-line head of the Iranian parliament’s research center, referred to “several thousand centrifuges damaged and destroyed” in a state TV interview. However, no other official has offered that figure and no images of the aftermath have been released.

In the coming weeks, Iran has threatened to further impede IAEA inspections and potentially destroy video recordings it now holds of its facilities. Meanwhile, it continues to use advanced centrifuges and gain know-how in high enrichment, something that worries nonproliferation experts.

“Because the deal has started to unravel, Iran has begun to acquire more knowledge about how to operate more advanced machines,” said Daryl G. Kimball, the executive director of the Washington-based Arms Control Association. “This particular operation, enriching to 60%, is going to give it even more information.”

Borrowing a term used to describe diluting high-enriched uranium, Kimball added: “That knowledge cannot be down-blended. It cannot be reversed.”

Pakistan briefly blocks social media amid anti-France rally

LAHORE, Pakistan | Pakistan briefly blocked access to all social media on Friday after days of violent anti-French protests across the country by radical Islamists opposed to cartoons they consider blasphemous.

Sites including Twitter and Facebook were blocked for four hours on orders from the country’s interior ministry, said Khurram Mehran, a spokesman for Pakistan’s media regulatory agency. He gave no further details.

The move comes as police officials prepare to clear a large demonstration in the eastern city of Lahore, and just hours after the government said the now-detained leader of the outlawed Islamist political party at the forefront of the protests had urged his supporters to stand down.

By releasing a note they say was handwritten by Saad Rizvi, the government hopes to calm tensions after his Tehreek-e-Labiak Pakistan party stirred up the violent protests — in which four police officers were killed and 600 injured. France urged its citizens to leave the country.

Three demonstrators also died in the clashes with security agencies, and the government has imposed a ban on the party with Prime Minister Imran Khan’s approval. Khan took to Twitter on Friday to pay tributes to policemen killed or injured in the violence. He said the violence was aimed at creating chaos and blackmailing his government.

Khan’s government also banned coverage of Rizvi’s party by the local media, while police registered cases against Rizvi for inciting violence that resulted in the killing of policemen.

A photo of the statement was released earlier by an advisor to the prime minister on Twitter, but neither Rizvi himself or any of his party leadership was immediately available for comment. Some of his followers insisted they hear or see the words come from Rizvi himself before stopping, and the Lahore protest continued after Friday prayers.

On Thursday, the French embassy in Pakistan advised all of its nationals and companies to temporarily leave the Islamic country, after violence erupted over Rizvi’s arrest.

Violent protests have ongoing in Lahore since Monday, damaging private and public property and disrupting the much-need supply of oxygen to hospitals. Some of the affected included COVID-19 patients, who were on oxygen support.

In the statement, Rizvi asked his supporters to peacefully disperse for the good of the country and end their main sit-in that began Monday, when police arrested the radical cleric for threatening protests if the government did not expel the French ambassador before April 20.

Rizvi’s arrest sparked violent protests by his followers, who disrupted traffic by staging sit-ins across the country. Although security forces cleared almost all of the rallies, thousands of Rizvi’s followers are still assembled in Lahore, vowing to die in order to protect the honor of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.

Rizvi became the leader of the outlawed Tehreek-e-Labiak Pakistan party in November after the sudden death of his father, Khadim Hussein Rizvi. His party also wants the government to boycott French products.

Rizvi’s party has denounced French President Emmanuel Macron since October last year, saying he tried to defend blasphemous caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad as freedom of expression. Macron had spoken after a young Muslim beheaded a French school teacher who had shown caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in class.

The images had been republished by the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo to mark the opening of the trial over the deadly 2015 attack against the publication for the original caricatures.

That enraged many Muslims in Pakistan and elsewhere who believe those depictions were blasphemous. Rizvi’s group in recent years became known for opposing any change to the country’s harsh blasphemy laws, under which anyone accused of insulting Islam or other religious figures can be sentenced to death if found guilty.

Polish civic groups oppose ‘takeover’ of human rights office

WARSAW, Poland | More than 120 Polish organizations have voiced opposition to what they call “the hostile takeover” of the office of the country’s human rights commissioner.

Their joint statement published Friday comes a day after the government-controlled Constitutional Tribunal issued a ruling which will end in three months the term of Adam Bodnar as human rights commissioner, or ombudsman.

The ombudsman’s office is an independent institution that safeguards the civil rights of individuals, can represent them in disputes with government authorities and obtain reversals of some state decisions.

“The (court decision) is another example of the government’s appropriation of the state, undermining the foundations of democracy and circumventing the provisions of the Constitution,” said the statement, whose signatories included groups defending human rights, the environment, and privacy rights.

Critics of the right-wing government see it as the latest chapter in the ruling Law and Justice’s party’s attempts to take control of key state institutions. The party is accused by the European Union of eroding the rule of law with its control over the judiciary and public media. It has also faced wide condemnation from human rights groups for a near-total ban on abortion and rhetoric against LGBT people.

Human Rights Watch said Bodnar’s removal likely spells “the end of one of (the) last independent checks on the country’s abusive government.”

Bodnar was named to his position shortly before Law and Justice took power in 2015. He had the broad support of parties now in opposition and civil society groups.

Bodnar had earlier gained prominence with his calls for accountability after it was revealed that left-wing authorities in the early 2000s allowed the CIA to operate a black site in Poland where terror suspects were tortured.

His term expired in September but he stayed on until a replacement could be found. But the lower house of parliament, controlled by the ruling party, and the Senate, where the opposition has a thin majority, have for months failed to agree on a new ombudsman.

Bodnar had recently taken steps to block the state oil giant’s takeover of a large private media group.

—From AP reports

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