Archive for the ‘Cuba Sanctions’ Category



OFAC: Keeping Us Safe from MOOCs

Posted by Clif Burns at 5:24 pm on March 25, 2014
Category: Cuba SanctionsEconomic SanctionsIran SanctionsSudanSyria

By Aristóteles Sandoval [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons blog previously reported on the impact of OFAC sanctions on the Massive Open Online Courses, quaintly known as MOOCs, offered by the for-profit Coursera. The sanctions have led Coursera to block students with IP addresses from Iran, Cuba and Sudan, a half-hearted attempt by the company to comply with U.S. sanctions.   Those sanctions, in general, prevent providing services to nationals of blocked countries even outside their home countries, so offering MOOCs to Iranians in, say, Germany, would be equally problematic. (Coursera gave Syrian students a reprieve relying, rather questionably, on an exemption in Syria General License 11A for educational exports by NGOs).

Last week, the Office of Foreign Assets Control gave Iranian students, both inside and outside Iran, a partial reprieve from the ban on MOOCs when it issued Iran General License G. That license permits enrollment of Iranians, both in and out of Iran, in MOOCs

provided that the courses are the equivalent of courses ordinarily required for the completion of undergraduate degree programs in the humanities, social sciences, law, or business, or are introductory undergraduate level science, technology, engineering, or math courses ordinarily required for the completion of undergraduate degree programs in the humanities, social sciences, law, or business.

Sadly, there was no happiness in Coursera-ville, because the license is restricted to “accredited graduate and undergraduate degree-granting academic institutions.” Not all of Coursera’s courses are offered by accredited academic institutions, so some of its course offering will not benefit from this general license.

Another beneficiary of the new general license would appear to be EdX, the MOOC platform founded by Harvard and MIT. EdX partners with other accredited academic institutions that provide the various offerings made available by EdX. One significant difference between EdX and Coursera is that EdX sought and obtained a license to provide MOOCs to students in  Cuba, Iran and Sudan. Apparently that license did not cover provision of STEM courses, i.e., courses in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, without specific approval by OFAC, according to this Harvard Crimson article.  That article went on to note the refusal of OFAC to permit a MOOC entitled “Flight Vehicle Aerodynamics” taught by MIT faculty.

This would mean that EdX and Coursera no longer need specific licenses for Iranian students to participate in courses taught by accredited institutions other than certain advanced STEM courses. However, licenses will still be required to initiate Cuban and Sudanese students into the intricacies of George Eliot’s Middlemarch or the structure of French symbolist poetry. (It is well known that familiarity with Eliot and Valéry are mere stepping stones to terrorist and anti-American activity, so we will be safe from literary Cuban and Sudanese terrorists, at least for the moment.) This General License, however, probably has no effect on the “Flight Vehicle Aerodynamics” course, because although it is far from clear what is meant by STEM courts “ordinarily required for the completion of undergraduate degree programs in the humanities, social sciences, law, or business,” it is probably safe to assume that “Flight Vehicle Aerodynamics” is not among them.

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Posted by Clif Burns at 8:59 pm on February 25, 2014
Category: Cuba SanctionsEconomic SanctionsIran SanctionsOFACSudanSyria

Formal Fridays via,8_IL.9,22_IC1147431.htm [Fair Use]I missed this earlier, but back at the end of January, Coursera, a provider of the euphoniously acronymed MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) said “No MOOCS for you” to residents of Cuba, Iran, Syria and Sudan who wanted to better themselves by taking online courses such as “Scandinavian Film and Television” or “Buddhism and Modern Psychology.” I certainly sleep better at night now knowing that the Cuban and Iranian threats are not being needlessly augmented by educating Cubans and Iranians on the subtle politics of Borgen or the psychological insights of the Four Noble Truths.

Because the online courses involve feedback, grading and the like, the concern is that these courses are an export of services, forbidden by the current sanctions on these countries, rather than the export of information, which is permitted under the Berman Amendment. Coursera is a little vague in explaining how it just found that out, saying that it “recently received information that has led to the understanding that the services offered on Coursera are not in compliance with the law as it stands” and that prior to that the law was “unclear.”

Coursera has given Syrian students a reprieve by saying that the State Department has told it that OFAC’s Syria General License 11A covers MOOCs for Syria. That license permits non-governmental organizations to export services to Syria in support of education. I’m not clear how Coursera qualifies as an NGO since it is not a non-profit but a for-profit corporation that seeks revenues and profits through its certification programs and sales of textbooks purchased through its affiliate relationship with Amazon. Nor am I quite clear how the State Department has acquired the ability to determine the scope of OFAC licenses.

The company claims that it is weeding out Cubans, Sudanese and Iranians based on IP addresses, apparently not having taken one of their own course on VPNs which would allow an Iranian wannabe student to appear, online at least, as a German or Italian or whatever. And since civil violations of OFAC rules do not require intent, Coursera is still liable if an Iranian is sitting in Iran but using a VPN to appear as if he or she were elsewhere.

This last point underlines a particular stupidity of applying a 19th century sanctions philosophy to a 21st century Internet where there are no borders. If an Iranian student is, in fact, sitting with his or her laptop in Germany, it would not be illegal for Coursera to provide its services to that student. It is only illegal when the student is in fact physically located in Iran. Now if you can identify a sensible policy which explains why it is more dangerous to teach an Iranian about Scandinavian TV while in Iran than it is in Germany, then you are much more clever than I am.

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What Happens in Panama Stays in Panama (including 200,000 bags of brown sugar)

Posted by George Murphy at 7:08 pm on November 19, 2013
Category: Cuba SanctionsEconomic SanctionsNorth Korea SanctionsSanctionsU.N. Sanctions

By jonprc (Flickr: north korean ship) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

We reported last July on Panama’s seizure of the North Korean vessel Chong Chon Gang sailing from Cuba to North Korea and carrying, among other things, disassembled Soviet-era MIG jets and missiles hidden in 200,000 bags of brown sugar. Cuba claimed it was sending these items to North Korea “for repair.” As was reported at the time, the North Korean crew tried to fend off Panamanian boarders with sticks while the vessel’s captain initially claimed to have a heart attack and subsequently attempted suicide.  The entire ordeal resulted in the rare Cuba-Panama-North Korea diplomatic tiff.  While we explained in July the UN sanctions against North Korea that were implicated, recent developments also provide telling aspects of U.S. sanctions policy against Cuba.

The United States has remained notably close-lipped and little has developed in almost four months since the seizure until this last week.  On Wednesday, the Panamanian foreign minister was in Washington and was thanked by Secretary Kerry for Panama’s “very important interdiction of a North Korean ship with illicit cargo.”  According to Panamanian media, the Panamanian foreign minister announced on Friday that Panama has granted visas to a North Korean delegation to come to Panama this week to claim the Chong Chon Gang and most of its crew.   The captain, two senior officers, the disassembled weaponry and the brown sugar will not be released.  Finally, Vice President Biden arrived yesterday in Panama to tour expansion sites of the Canal.

The upshot of the entire incident is that the United States got the best promotion of sanctions against Cuba it could have asked for.  Panama was the one who exposed Cuba engaging in concealed international arms trafficking with North Korea.  The United States, as a result, was not thrust into a position to defend an embargo unsupported by most of  its allies, but rather could let Cuba be scolded by another Latin American country.

The United States, of course, most likely played critical behind-the-scenes intelligence and direction related to the seizure, and the recent diplomatic visits between the two countries are reminders that Panama relies heavily on U.S. support and, therefore, would be willing to comply with the occasional Soviet-era arms seizure at the behest of the United States.  Perhaps not coincidentally, the North Korean crew have been detained at Fort Sherman, a former U.S. military base on the Atlantic side of the Canal.

While Iran takes current front page news on U.S. sanctions policy, the activities onboard the Chong Chon Gang is a singular example of why the United States is not inclined to ease sanctions meaningfully against Cuba soon and will use this episode as support that sanctions should remain as is.

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Berman Amendment? What Berman Amendment??

Posted by Clif Burns at 10:42 pm on October 23, 2013
Category: BISCuba SanctionsOFAC

By Marrovi (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5-mx (], via Wikimedia Commons in August, the Bureau of Industry and Security issued an advisory opinion relating to a request from a number of U.S. art museums regarding temporary export of artworks from the United States to Cuba, presumably to be displayed in the 2014 Havana Biennial. A simple question, one would think, easily answered by the Berman Amendment which prohibits BIS from regulating “directly or indirectly” the export of “informational materials” to Cuba. But never, ever underestimate the inventiveness of BIS in figuring out ways to prevent the Commies in Cuba from being propped up by American paintings hanging on museum walls in Havana.

The BIS advisory opinion starts promisingly by conceding that BIS would be “prohibited from  regulating ‘information or informational material’ such as artwork.” But don’t start packing up your Rembrandts yet:

You stated in your request that the artwork would be transported to Cuba using a vessel. Please note that, pursuant to Section 746.2 of the EAR, an export license is required for the temporary sojourn of vessels to Cuba. The vessel may not travel to Cuba unless the exporter of the vessel first obtains a temporary sojourn license from BIS.

So, if you can have Scotty and the Starship Enterprise beam the artwork up to Havana, you don’t need an export license from BIS to send a painting to Cuba. Otherwise, so sad, too bad, but you’d better get permission from BIS first, Berman amendment or not. This rather defeats the part of the Berman amendment which says that BIS can’t regulate “directly or indirectly” the export of informational materials to Cuba or other sanctioned countries. Even OFAC, not a hotbed of pro-Cuba sympathy or Berman amendment enthusiasm, gets this. Section 515.550 of OFAC’s Cuban Assets Control Regulations makes clear that a vessel engaging in exempt transactions does not require a license to go to Cuba.

To add insult to injury, the advisory opinion says this:

[A]rtwork is considered “informational materials” exempt from the EAR’s jurisdiction when exported to Cuba if it is classified under Chapter subheadings 9701, 9702, or 9703 of the Harmonized Tariff Schedule of the United States (HTSUS). If the material at issue is exempt from the EAR, a BIS license is not required for its export to Cuba. Please contact the U.S. International Trade Commission if you need assistance with classifying the artwork in accordance with HTSUS.

Seriously, the person who wrote this opinion thinks that you get HTSUS classification decisions from the USITC. The USITC itself, as a quick to Google would have revealed to the author of the opinion, doesn’t think it can provide classification assistance:

Although, in principle, articles can be classified in only one place, classification often requires interpretation and judgment. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has authority to make classification decisions and may disagree with a reasonable classification offered by the importer. Published Customs rulings ( are often useful to see how Customs looks at the issues. USITC does not issue classification decisions.

Even more bizarre, why does BIS suggest that the exporter needs to make some difficult decision to determine whether an artwork fits in a specific HTSUS tariff heading and then misdirect the exporter to the wrong agency to resolve that thorny issue? Evidently to make the museums think twice before they send paintings to Havana. It’s a slippery slope after all that starts with oil paintings and ends up with weapons of mass destruction.

[Note:  even though the advisory opinion suggests that all vessels need a license to go to Cuba, the museums could put the artwork on a boat, send it to a foreign port, and have a foreign boat transport the artwork to Cuba -- an unnecessary, pointless and possibly hazardous solution.]

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Give That Pigeon a Cigar

Posted by Clif Burns at 1:34 am on October 18, 2013
Category: Cuba SanctionsOFAC

Source http:// [Public Domain]One of the only things that the Cuba embargo has accomplished has been an unusual burst of creativity by U.S. citizens in figuring out clever ways to smuggle Cuban cigars into the United States.  There is, of course, the method of ordering Cuban cigars over the Internet from a Canadian merchant.  And not to be forgotten are the helpful tobacconists in London who will relabel and repackage Cuban cigars.  But nothing beats homing pigeons.  Seriously, homing pigeons.

An article in today’s New York Times details an “art exhibit” entitled “Trading with the Enemy” which involves, among other things, training homing pigeons to fly from Havana to Key West with cigars strapped to their backs — flying mules, as it were.

The artist for this project, acknowledging the potential sanctions issues involved, offers a coy — or, some might say, stupid — response:

“How those cigars end up on the birds, I can’t say,” he said, carefully. “If a bird ends up in my pigeon lofts, that happens to have a cigar from Cuba, and there also happens to be a pigeon that has a video camera on it, that shows footage of birds flying from Havana to Key West with cigars — yeah, I can’t really say how that happened.”

The OFAC response to this dog-ate-my-homework story was equally articulate:


The OFAC spokesperson subsequently had second thoughts about this response:

In a statement, she added that importing or dealing in Cuban goods is generally prohibited for “persons subject to the jurisdiction of the United States.”

Oooookkkkay, so we all agree that the artist might be in deep pigeon guano if OFAC comes after him, but what about the pigeons? Are they U.S. persons under the rules? Can they sign a consent agreement? Can they be added to the SDN List as Cigar Kingpigeons?

Actually, I think it’s a good sign that the OFAC response seems to indicate that the agency has better things to do than chase stogie-toting homing pigeons. Just wait, however, until Ileana Ross-Lehtinen finds out. I can’t wait for the hearings and watching her try to put the pigeons under oath.

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