Geopolitics

Why U.S. Policy On Cuba Has Reached A Tipping Point

Increasingly, the general American public and even anti-Castro businessmen now seem to agree that less hostility toward Cuba is the best road to take.

Sipping a mojito in Miami's Little Havana
Sipping a mojito in Miami's Little Havana
Arlene B. Tickner

-Analysis-

BOGOTA – Public debate on Cuba in American politics had long been frozen, due to Florida's importance in U.S. elections and the weight of the Cuban-American lobby. But something has changed, and we can begin to discern an emerging consensus among politicians, businessmen, intellectuals, media, civic leaders and the public on the need to change Washington's strategy toward Cuba.

Two polls this year by the Atlantic Council and the Florida International University confirm that an ample majority of the U.S. population favors the normalization of ties with Cuba, and an end to restrictions on trade and travel. Most share the view that the embargo on the island has simply not worked.

Regarding Miami, where the majority of Cuban Americans live, levels of support for this change are actually above the national average. This change of position among those who used to be the main obstacle to any overtures to the communist regime is reflected in the case of the sugar magnate and former donor to Castro opponents, Alfonso Fanjul.

He recently admitted to The Washington Post that he had made several trips to Cuba in pursuit of various attractive investment opportunities. Likewise 50 prominent businessmen and politicians recently wrote to President Barack Obama, urging an acceleration of bilateral rapprochement.

Colombia's role

Indeed, when a recent editorial in The New York Times called for a change to the outdated policies on Cuba, it actually came as no surprise. The embargo is now effectively weighing on the U.S., depriving it of the opportunities generated by a loosening of economic policies in Cuba that are being cashed in on by such trading partners as Brazil and the European Union, which are increasingly replacing Venezuela as partner-investors in various infrastructure projects, like the Mariel mega-port.

We should decode the Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos' calls at the UN inviting the U.S. to reformulate its embargo and soften policies toward Cuba, strictly into context. Santos made his declarations at an investment forum for Colombia on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, and some observers explained them as a gesture of thanks to the Castro brothers, for facilitating the peace talks held in Havana between Colombia and the communist FARC guerrillas.

But there is a more convincing reading of his declarations. As Washington's unconditional ally in Latin America, whose voice is closely heard, President Santos may have sought to boost from the outside those bipartisan voices in the United States that back President Barack Obama's policy change on Cuba in the face of Republican critics.

All eyes will now be on the next Summit of the Americas set for April, when the entire continent and the Secretary-General of the Organization of American States will seek Cuba's attendance. If Obama is there too, we may witness a historic turning point in U.S.-Cuba relations.

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Economy

Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.


Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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