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Gunfight Over Money in the Dark

What started over the debate on gun control now is an election completely overrun with money. The recall election of Senators Giron and Morse has given the public a rare look at how outside interests influence local elections.

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Tracking the connections and links is nearly impossible but PULP's investigation into the recall money shows the fundraising apparatus for both sides.  View a hi-res PDF of the chart. Tracking the connections and links is nearly impossible but PULP’s investigation into the recall money shows the fundraising apparatus for both sides.  View a hi-res PDF of the chart.

Local Efforts & The Start:

Pueblo Freedom and Rights, the committee that ultimately gained enough signatures to proceed with a recall election against State Senator Angela Giron, calls itself a true grassroots effort that has largely gotten this far on their own.

“We never knew we were able to do this,” Victor Head told PULP. While most donations to PFR were small, there was outside help from other groups.

The Basic Freedom Defense Fund has been aiding PFR’s effort by picking up the tab on legal costs, according to Head on AR15.com on July 13.

There is record of BFDF giving money directly to PRF on August 8 with a $2,000 donation. Board members from BFDF have also donated money to PFR. Victor Head verified this in addition to saying in the beginning, BFDF didn’t even think the Pueblo group had a shot in succeeding.

Head met some of the board members on AR15.com’s forum. They began talking about the legislation and all planned to meet up at the capitol to protest. Even from that meet up, BFDF board members weren’t sold on aiding PFR, so the Head brothers borrowed $4,000 from their grandma to pay for legal counsel.

It was only after BFDF, having a major hand in the recall of Morse, and PFR were facing lawsuits in the same week that BFDF decided to provide help.

“After we came together, (PRF) had already succeeded,” Head said.

BFDF is a 501(c)4 non-profit organization that was created in correspondence with the creation of gun legislation. It also calls itself a grassroots effort.

“We are currently providing overall monetary, legal, organizational, outreach and media support to several issue committees targeting key offenders for such recall. Any donations given to the BFDF go towards the recall committees under the BFDF umbrella,” the organization states on its website.

While there are other groups involved in the recall of Giron, PFR hasn’t been working with them directly. The NRA hasn’t contacted PFR and there is no link from the NRA directly to PFR. Though a representative did show up to PFR’s grand opening, there has been virtually no contact between the two groups.

Five Key Donors:

Though the board members at BFDF don’t refer to their organization as big, they have had some help from some big names.

Keith Coniglio, a board member for BFDF said on a post on AR15.com the group received help from four groups, Americans for Prosperity, the NRA, the National Shooting Sports Foundation and a fourth unnamed source that was aiding in the very beginning but couldn’t contribute long term. Some of these names are expected but it’s how they donated and when a trail of who was involved and when becomes traceable.  Laura Carno’s efforts and groups in Colorado Springs also become important to the success of BFDF.

Laura Carno and I Am Created Equal:

In contact with Pueblo Freedom and Rights, the El Paso Freedom Defense Committee—the original group leading the petition drive against Senator Morse, started by the board members of BFDF, received $56,798 from I Am Created Equal, a 501(c)4 organization. I Am Created Equal did not give money directly to BFDF instead and according to Laura Carno, “I Am Created Equal donated the signatures to El Paso Freedom Defense Committee.”

The money was raised from “large and small donors all from Colorado.” Carno then paid Kennedy Enterprises to run the petition drive and from there she donated the signatures back to El Paso Freedom Defense Committee.

When asked for clarification if Carno donated voluntarily or was prompted by an outside group she said, “I would have to speak to my attorney on how to characterize that.”

Carno is also behind the IACE (I Am Created Equal) Action, a political action committee that is paying for some of the TV spots against Sen. Morse.

Americans for Prosperity:

Coniglio sites AFP as a contributor for their walking efforts and phone bank.  BFDF’s spokeswoman, Jennifer Kerns, has a connection to AFP but said in an email to PULP that she has had no activity with the Colorado chapter.

Kerns helped start the organization in California but she said in her email while she does an occasional project for California AFP, she has never worked for the Colorado sector.

Kerns was noted on a press release from AFP as recently as August 8. BFDF pays Kerns for her work even though none of the seven board members are not paid.

“The Basic Freedom Defense Fund was referred to me by a few women who knew that I was one of the first women who testified on the gun control bills in the Colorado legislature back in February,” said Kerns. In the 2013 Legislative cycle, Kerns worked for Coloradans Against Unions Using Kids As Pawns. Her past work listed on her resume is as the Spokeswoman & Communications Director for the California Republican Party and director of the “two largest tea parties in the Nation.”

In searching over contributions, PULP could not find any direct contributions by AFP.

NRA:

According to BFDF, the NRA helped out in two ways. It covered some of the expensive legal costs incurred in the court challenge to the recall. According to Coniglio’s post on AR15.com, “The NRA finally came through in a big way, helping us immensely with a ridiculously large (think “five-digit”–and then probably double the number you think) legal bill.”

The NRA also paid to the El Paso Freedom Defense Committee for the cost of mailing and phone banking on May 22 according to expenditure reports. It should be noted board members of BFDF were the registered agents for the El Paso Freedom Defense Committee.

National Shooting Sports Foundation:

It’s the National Sports Shooting Foundation’s contribution that leaves a paper trail that paints the web of money beyond the grassroots recall groups and implies GOP leadership was either aware of what was going on earlier than the media reported or they were, in some part, involved on the recall process early on.

Coniglio said the NSSF was a supporter but there is no paper trail from NSSF to the groups, because of BFDF’s status as a 501(c)4 non-profit organization. He stated the NSSF contributed office space for BFDF’s headquarters.

The only monetary contribution NSSF has for the year is to the Colorado Leadership Fund on Jan. 9. The Colorado Leadership Fund is one of the main Colorado House Republican Fundraising Committees.

PULP contacted NSSF to clarify its donation if it gave any other money directly to BFDF. NSSF did not respond to PULP’s multiple requests for comment.

On the outset this looks like a typical contribution as many businesses, committees and other political organizations flood both the Democratic and Republican fundraising committees with cash as the legislative session begins.

The link, while not conclusive, indicates outside support earlier than reported and indicates GOP registered agents might have been involved in the formation of these committees.

A Republican Link:

The fact the Colorado Republican Party was involved in the recall of multiple state Senators, while an issue for Democrats, is not out of the ordinary. It was expected that the GOP would help in some way after the groups were authorized to collect signatures or after the recall election was made official by the state.

Colorado Citizens Protecting Our Constitution is a 501(c)4 registered by Andy Nickel, the agent who also registered Coloradan Citizens for Accountable Government. CCAG is a major committee in support for the Colorado GOP.

In question is whether or not the Colorado House or Senate Minority Leadership was involved prior to the recall groups forming.

Victor Head has confirmed to the PULP, and this is verified by financial disclosures, that Colorado Citizens Protecting Our Constitution gave the Pueblo Freedom and Rights group money.  CCPOC has given a total of $10,000 this election cycle to PFR.

“Colorado Citizens Protecting our Constitution has actively donated to our cause here in Pueblo. Like actual checks in my hand.” Head wrote on AR15.com

Not even Nickel’s involvement with this committee and his connections to well-funded Republican committees would imply Republican involvement from the beginning. None of this would lead directly back to State Republicans and their fundraising committees if it wasn’t for the date the group was registered as a 501(c)4, the date listed on the Secretary of State’s website is February 13 — 5 days before Jennifer Kerns stated the group was formed and when BFDF asked for volunteers to begin recalling targeted Democrats.

Because the date is before the recall groups organized, we asked Andy Nickel for clarification. He did not respond to our requests. We contacted the Senate Minority Office for information about this group and if this office was involved directly in the recall groups—no one responded.

So what this means is a registered agent with ties to the Republican fundraising apparatus formed a 501(c)4 to spend money on the recall of Morse and Giron before the recall groups went public.

The donation raises more questions because it was this group which paid EIS Solutions, a consulting firm where former Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry works—to run print advertisements against Representative Mike McClachlan according to a Durango Herald Report from February. In the report the BFDF, then called Colorado Accountability, denied any collusion with Colorado Citizens Protecting Our Constitution.

For fairness, the argument against GOP involvement would be that these two groups, the BFDF and Andy Nickel’s Colorado Citizens Protecting Our Constitution, were doing their own thing and under the recall had similar interests. Through repeated requests for clarification from the State Republicans that these two groups were acting independently, PULP has not received clarification from State Republicans on the discrepancies of dates or on the role of Colorado Citizens Protecting our Constitution.

The Blue Umbrella

To understand how Democrats move money around their network you have to look no further than Michael Bloomberg’s donation.

On August 8, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg contributed $350,000 to Taxpayers for Responsible Government, a 527 political committee. PULP could find little identifying information for the group except its two registered agents April Ann Martinez and Julie Wells.

Julie Wells is the name on many of the pro-Democrat fundraising groups as the registered agent –which is actually a compliance administrator for these groups. The second name is April Ann Martinez who is the office administrator for Project New America, a campaign consulting firm, according to their website, “develops, aggregates, and disseminates strategies that empower progressives to achieve their research and communications goals.”

Taxpayers for Responsible Democracy then gave Pueblo United for Angela donations of $189,000 on August 8, $31,000 on August 9 and $50,000 on August 16 for a total of $270,000 in the August reporting period.

The blue-sided umbrella doesn’t stop there. Julie Wells with Josette Jaramillo of Pueblo and Vice President of AFSCME 76(Government Employees Union) registered the committee, We Can Do Better Colorado Committee to oppose the recalls of Morse and Giron. That’s not to be confused with the other committees they formed:  the We Can Do Better Issue Committee which shouldn’t be confused with We Can Do Better Independent Expenditure Committee. (Editor’s note: we felt it too confusing to break down each contribution to these three groups.)

These groups raised $225,000 from the Democratic Leadership Campaign Committee, $100,000 from the Service Employees International Union, $100,000 from AFSCME, $70,000 National Educators Association, $50,000 United Food and Commercial Workers Union, $25,000 International Association of Firefighters, and $20,000 AFL-CIO just to name the large donors among the many labor organizations. The three, We Can Do Better groups then moved money around often donating the money to another We Can Do Better group that would then spend it.

Their biggest expenditures were to campaign media firms such as Adelstein Liston a “media and strategic communications consulting firm” from Chicago and The Strategy Group for direct mail. For this year, Adelstein Liston has received $643,000 by all groups required to report their expenditures publicly. Contrast that with the $118,042.35 Colorado campaigns paid them in 2012.

To sum it up, Mayor Bloomberg, the Unions and the National Party Democrats all used pass-through committees to get money spent on these campaigns either by giving it directly to the committees for Giron and Morse or by spending on campaign items themselves.

However, there is evidence with the Democrats to show this is all not just done in D.C but rather:

Mainstream Colorado, another committee registered by Julie Wells, was formed in late 2012 to support Democrat Candidates, or as the official documents state, “to educate and inform voters regarding candidates for the state legislature, primarily supporting Democrats and opposing Republicans.

Mainstream Colorado received over $200,000 in contributions from various Democratic donors some as large as $100,000 from John Arnold, a hedge fund manager from Texas dubbed “the king of natural gas.”  One of Mainstream Colorado expenditures is to Red Rock Strategies. There are two Red Rock Strategies:  one that Secretary of State Scott Gessler works with and the other is the political consulting group run by Kjersten Forseth who is the Chief of State for the Colorado Senate Democrats (John Morse is the Majority Leader). Her firm works specifically in helping Democratic causes and candidates in El Paso County. Red Rock Strategies has received over $21,000 from Mainstream Colorado in 2013 alone.

PULP contacted Forseth to ask about this election, how the money moved around Democratic groups and if it was a conflict of interest being involved in fundraising, campaign management and also official Colorado Senate business. PULP did not receive a response.

Donkey Spiders & Elephant Webs

In covering this story, there is a clear contrast as to how the Republicans move money around and how the Democrats move money around.

The names that could illuminate the entire process are the registered agents. They are the financial compliance officers that run paperwork in order for these groups to function within the confines of the law. Most are hired attorneys by the groups they represent. It would be a different story if there were thousands of registered agents, one for every group. There are but a handful of people like Julie Wells and Ashley Stevens for the Democrats and Katie Kennedy along with Andy Nickel for the Republicans. While these individuals don’t control the entire financial apparatus, they are the ones registering the 501c4’s, nonprofits, PACS and issue committees, and submitting the filings on behalf of these groups.

With each involvement, job or prior connection, the web grows despite their current actions.

Take for example Laura Carno with whom we spoke.  Her registered agent is Mario Nicolais, an attorney who is also a candidate for a Lakewood State Senate race. Mario Nicolais’ law firm is the Hackstaff Law Firm. On certain committee filings for Insight Colorado it has the same address as the Hackstaff Law Firm. Insight Colorado is a consulting firm that hires Andy George, and Nikki Kirsch. On their LinkedIn pages they are listed as political directors for Insight Colorado. Andy George was lauded for his fundraising efforts to help Republicans. On the Secretary of State’s website the big dollar Republican committees such as the Colorado Leadership Fund, the Senate Majority Fund and Colorado Citizens for Accountable Government pay Insight Colorado for consulting work.  CCAG’s registered agent is Andy Nickel. Finally, you have Scott Gessler, current Secretary of State, who was a former partner at Hackstaff Law Group when it was called Hackstaff Gessler.

There’s also the connection from the BFDF to Laura Carno, the I Am Created Equal founder who is the producer of the Jeff Crank Show. Jeff Crank was the political director for AFP. Jennifer Kerns, as of the first week of August was a spokeswoman for AFP.

Laura Carno has flatly denied this link and said it’s a mischaracterization of her role at AFP. She stated there is no direct connection up the chain to AFP. Nor was money working its way through a web to get to one of her committees and then to the recall groups.

Her attorney also said that he believes the facts of the connection up through Insight Colorado to other GOP committees was not correct. When asked again for clarification on the connections, since he works at the same law firm where Insight Colorado has an address listed, Nicolais did not respond. PULP called Insight Colorado and the phone number given was Jim Hackstaff, senior partner at the firm. He also did not respond to our requests.

PULP believes Laura Carno’s statement to be genuine and factual but to outsiders the connections can only be characterized as curiously convenient.

Then you have the Democrats who give money to one of Julie Wells’ many committees. We are not leaving out the web on the Democrat side, for the majority of groups who had to disclose their financials publicly, Julie Wells is a name found much of the time, she was the beginning, end and middle man for many Democratic groups.

There are a lot of loose connections that only insiders could possibly know. While it would be wrong to falsely imply some associations, it is easy to see how incestuous the dark money in Colorado politics appears to link groups together without committees having to explain their associations. All of this evident because this recall election has broken the expected. Yet the dark web of money will be prevalent in future campaigns because this is exactly how large donors fund their interests in general elections.

Victor Head and Pueblo Freedom and Rights started this recall and the irony is, it will be the money that finishes it.

by Kara Mason (on Twitter @karanormal ) with contributions by John Rodriguez.

Correction: August 3rd 2013. In the print version, we printed “contracted” when we meant “contacted”. Also the BFDF did not pay board members. It was an typo left out of the print edition.

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Push to legalize marijuana upends governor’s race in New Mexico

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jeff Apodaca on Thursday called for the expansion of New Mexico’s medical marijuana program and for legalization of recreational use, saying the poverty-stricken state is missing out on millions of dollars in tax revenues and jobs that could be spurred by the industry.

Apodaca released his plan solidifying his position as a supporter of legalization as the race for governor heats up.

Apodaca pointed to New Mexico’s history as the first state to allow for research and experimentation with marijuana as a therapeutic drug. It was his father, then-Gov. Jerry Apodaca, who signed that legislation in 1978.

The research program stalled and it wasn’t until 2008 that New Mexico rolled out its medical cannabis program.

“Why are we shooting for being the last to legalize cannabis for adult use?” Apodaca said.

The push for legalization comes as New Mexico’s medical marijuana program has grown exponentially in just the last two years. Producers licensed under the program reported record sales of more than $86 million in 2017 and the number of patients enrolled now tops 50,000.

“We know the medical benefits of it. And we also know the opportunities of legalization for adult use,” Apodaca said, suggesting expansion of the long-standing medical marijuana program along with legalization could result in an estimated $200 million of additional tax revenues for the state.

The state’s largest producer, Ultra Health, announced that it has acquired farmland in southern New Mexico and has plans for what the industry says could be the largest cultivation facility in North America.

The property spans nearly one-third of a square mile (81 hectares) in Otero County. It will include 20 acres (8 hectares) of indoor cultivation, 80 acres (32 hectares) of outdoor cannabis fields and another 100 acres (40 hectares) of outdoor hemp fields.

Ultra Health president and CEO Duke Rodriguez said the company is preparing for a future in which New Mexico stands to benefit from expanded medical use and possibly recreational use.

Apodaca’s plan calls for lifting the current limits on the number of plants producers can grow and reducing costly licensing fees.

Other Democratic candidates have been more cautious.

U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham said she would work with state lawmakers to ensure there are adequate health, safety and enforcement measures in place. She called for a “thorough analysis” of recreational pot programs in other states as part of that effort.

Lujan Grisham was in charge of the state Health Department when the medical marijuana program began. Aside from the legalization debate, she said supporting producers to create the latest medicines and methods to help patients would help create jobs and expand the industry.

State Sen. Joseph Cervantes, another Democratic candidate, has sponsored unsuccessful legislation to decriminalize possession of small quantities of pot but has said the state is lacking infrastructure and isn’t ready yet to legalize.

Cervantes recently lauded efforts at the local level by the state’s largest city — Albuquerque — to decriminalize possession of small amounts. He said he would do the same as governor and that it would mark a first step.

Republican congressman and gubernatorial candidate Steve Pearce expressed reservations about legalization at a forum earlier this month. He said it might create a stumbling block for people trying to climb out of poverty and addiction to other drugs.

“I just don’t see how it fits that we’re going to deal with addiction and yet we’re going to tell people, ‘This one is OK.’ I’ve watched it for a lifetime. I just am very nervous with recreational marijuana,” he said.

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‘For fun’ killing reveals vulnerability for homeless Native Americans in New Mexico

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The morning a homeless man was shot and killed in Albuquerque, police say surveillance videos showed him running down a street before sunrise, and then gunfire flash in the dark.

Native Americans make up only 4 percent of the population, but account for 44 percent of people living on the streets, raising the likelihood they will be victimized when there is an attack on the homeless.

Ronnie Ross, a 50-year-old from the Navajo Nation town of Shiprock, had been shot a dozen times, including once in the forehead and temple, and four times in the back, according to a criminal complaint. Police say the two teenage suspects charged with murder this week apparently shot him “for fun” as they came and went from a hotel party nearby.

The homicide marked the latest in a series of brazen killings and assaults of homeless Native Americans in the city. In Albuquerque, Native Americans make up only 4 percent of the population, but account for 44 percent of people living on the streets, raising the likelihood they will be victimized when there is an attack on the homeless.

A 2014 survey showed 75 percent of homeless Native Americans in Albuquerque had been physically assaulted.

“Just being harassed is part of everyday life, but it’s not as much harassment as it is overgrown bullying,” said Gordon Yawakia, who works at the Albuquerque Indian Center and was once homeless himself. “What do you do when people are against you and then the authorities are against you and you’ve got nobody, you know?”

In 2014, Allison Gorman and Kee Thompson, both Navajo, were beaten to death as they slept in a vacant lot. While authorities did not say the men were targeted because they were Native American, activists disagreed and the deaths spurred the creation of a city task force to address Native American homelessness that now-former Mayor Richard Berry said could set the stage for changes for the population across the Southwest.

Now, Ross’ death is underscoring how difficult it may be to protect and find solutions for the city’s Native American homeless population.

“When I hear a story like this it adds fuel to the fire,” said Dawn Begay, who is the city’s tribal liaison, and works with the homeless through a local nonprofit. “Where we’re headed is a good direction but it has to happen faster.”

Ross’ killing in March came three months after the body of Audra Willis was found decapitated in an area not far from the Sandia Mountains that line the city’s east side. The 39-year-old had come from To’hajiilee, a tiny Navajo community west of Albuquerque, and records show she had multiple addresses during her time in the city, including at the Albuquerque Indian Center.

Willis’ especially grisly death sent shockwaves through Albuquerque, just as the beatings of Thompson and Gorman had three years earlier.

The two men had been killed on a July 2014 night when authorities say three boys — ages 15, 16 and 18_returned home from a night of drinking and decided to attack them as they slept on a mattress. The men were beaten with a wooden table leg, cinder blocks, and other objects, police said. One young suspect later told authorities that the teens had beaten dozens of homeless people, though apparently none others fatally.

In Ross’ death, the complaint filed against the 15- and 17-year-old suspects does not identify a motive, but says the two teenagers bragged to friends about the shooting.

According to police, friends and acquaintances of the boys — whom The Associated Press is not naming because of their ages — said the suspects had been showing off a gun at the party, and had said to others that they had shot a man. At one point, the younger boy also said to a close friend at the party that he shot a “hobo” in the back.

The boys made one more stop at the scene to find Ross still alive, prompting the older boy to shoot him multiple times, according to the complaint.

“It’s completely disturbing,” said Officer Simon Drobik, an Albuquerque police spokesman, said Tuesday. “They just shot this guy for fun.”

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The Last Castro; Raul retires as Cuban president

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Raul Castro turned over Cuba’s presidency Thursday to a 57-year-old successor he said would hold power until 2031, a plan that would place the state the Castro brothers founded and ruled for 60 years in the hands of a Communist Party official little known to most on the island.

Castro’s 90-minute valedictory speech offered his first clear vision for the nation’s future power structure under new President Miguel Mario Diaz-Canel Bermudez. Castro said he foresees the white-haired electronics engineer serving two five-year terms as leader of the Cuban government, and taking the helm of the Communist Party, the country’s ultimate authority, when Castro leaves the powerful position in 2021.

“From that point on, I will be just another soldier defending this revolution,” Castro said. The 86-year-old general broke frequently from his prepared remarks to joke and banter with officials on the dais in the National Assembly, saying he looked forward to having more time to travel the country.

In his own half-hour speech to the nation, Diaz-Canel pledged to preserve Cuba’s communist system while gradually reforming the economy and making the government more responsive to the people.

“There’s no space here for a transition that ignores or destroys the legacy of so many years of struggle,” Diaz-Canel said. “For us, it’s totally clear that only the Communist Party of Cuba, the guiding force of society and the state, guarantees the unity of the nation of Cuba.”

Diaz-Canel said he would work to implement a long-term plan laid out by the National Assembly and communist party that would continue allowing the limited growth of private enterprises like restaurants and taxis, while leaving the economy’s most important sectors such as energy, mining, telecommunications, medical services and rum- and cigar-production in the hands of the state.

“The people have given this assembly the mandate to provide continuity to the Cuban Revolution during a crucial, historic moment that will be defined by all that we achieve in the advance of the modernization of our social and economic model,” Diaz-Canel said.

Cubans said they expected their new president to deliver improvements to the island’s economy, which remains stagnant and dominated by inefficient, unproductive state-run enterprises that are unable to provide salaries high enough to cover basic needs. The average monthly pay for state workers is roughly $30 a month, forcing many to steal from their workplaces and depend on remittances from relatives abroad.

“I hope that Diaz-Canel brings prosperity,” said Richard Perez, a souvenir salesman in Old Havana. “I want to see changes, above all economic changes allowing people to have their own businesses, without the state in charge of so many things.”

But in Miami, Cuban-Americans said they didn’t expect much from Diaz-Canel.

“It’s a cosmetic change,” said Wilfredo Allen, a 66-year-old lawyer who left Cuba two years after the Castros’ 1959 revolution. “The reality is that Raul Castro is still controlling the Communist Party. We are very far from having a democratic Cuba.”

After formally taking over from his older brother Fidel in 2008, Raul Castro launched a series of reforms that led to a rapid expansion of Cuba’s private sector and burgeoning use of cellphones and the internet. Cuba today has a vibrant real estate market and one of the world’s fastest-growing airports. Tourism numbers have more than doubled since Castro and President Barack Obama re-established diplomatic relations in 2015, making Cuba a destination for nearly 5 million visitors a year, despite a plunge in relations under the Trump administration.

Castro’s moves to open the economy even further have largely been frozen or reversed as soon as they began to generate conspicuous displays of wealth by the new entrepreneurial class in a country officially dedicated to equality among its citizens. Foreign investment remains anemic and the island’s infrastructure is falling deeper into disrepair. The election of President Donald Trump dashed dreams of detente with the U.S., and after two decades of getting Venezuelan subsidies totaling more than $6 billion a year, Cuba’s patron has collapsed economically, with no replacement in the wings.

Castro’s inability or unwillingness to fix Cuba’s structural problems with deep and wide-ranging reforms has many wondering how a successor without Castro’s founding-father credentials will manage the country over the next five or 10 years.

“I want the country to advance,” said Susel Calzado, a 61-year-old economics professor. “We already have a plan laid out.”

Most Cubans have known their new president as an uncharismatic figure who until recently maintained a public profile so low it was virtually nonexistent. Castro’s declaration Thursday that he saw Diaz-Canel in power for more than a decade was likely to resolve much of the uncertainty about the power the new president would wield inside the Cuban system.

“The same thing we’re doing with him, he’ll have to do with his successor,” Castro said. “When his 10 years of service as president of the Council of State and Council of Ministers are over, he’ll have three years as first secretary in order to facilitate the transition. This will help us avoid mistakes by his successor, until (Diaz-Canel) retires to take care of the grandchildren he will have then, if he doesn’t have them already, or his great-grandchildren.”

Cuban state media said Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulated Diaz-Canel and thanked Castro for the many years of cooperation between the two countries, while Chinese President Xi Jinping also reaffirmed his country’s friendship with Cuba and expressed interest in deeper ties.

At the U.S. State Department, spokeswoman Heather Nauert expressed disappointment at the handover, saying Cuban citizens “had no real power to affect the outcome” of what she called the “undemocratic transition” that brought Diaz-Canal to the presidency.

Vice President Mike Pence tweeted at Castro that the U.S. won’t rest until Cuba “has free & fair elections, political prisoners are released & the people of Cuba are finally free!”

Diaz-Canel said his government would be willing to talk with the United States but rejected all demands for changes in the Cuban system.

With Castro watching from the audience, Diaz-Canel made clear that for the moment he would defer to the man who founded the Cuban communist system along with his brother Fidel. He said he would retain Castro’s cabinet through at least July, when the National Assembly meets again.

“I confirm to this assembly that Raul Castro, as first secretary of the Communist Party, will lead the decisions about the future of the country,” Diaz-Canel said. “Cuba needs him, providing ideas and proposals for the revolutionary cause, orienting and alerting us about any error or deficiency, teaching us, and always ready to confront imperialism.”

Diaz-Canel first gained prominence in central Villa Clara province as the top Communist Party official, a post equivalent to governor. People there describe him as a hard-working, modest-living technocrat dedicated to improving public services. He became higher education minister in 2009 before moving into the vice presidency.

In a video of a Communist Party meeting that inexplicably leaked to the public last year, Diaz-Canel expressed a series of orthodox positions that included somberly pledging to shutter some independent media and labeling some European embassies as outposts of foreign subversion.

But he has also defended academics and bloggers who became targets of hard-liners, leading some to describe him a potential advocate for greater openness in a system intolerant of virtually any criticism or dissent. International observers and Cubans alike will be scrutinizing every move he makes in coming days and weeks.

As in Cuba’s legislative elections, all of the leaders selected Wednesday were picked by a government-appointed commission. Ballots offered only the option of approval or disapproval and candidates generally receive more than 95 percent of the votes in their favor. Diaz-Canel was approved by 604 votes in the 605-member assembly. It was unclear if he had abstained or someone else had declined to endorse him.

The assembly also approved another six vice presidents of the Council of State, Cuba’s highest government body. Only one, 85-year-old Ramiro Valdes, was among the revolutionaries who fought with the Castros in the late 1950s in the eastern Sierra Maestra mountains.

___

Associated Press writer Ben Fox contributed to this report.

 

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