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Medea Benjamin on U.S. Cuban Sanctions & Biden’s Embrace of Saudi Arabia Despite Horrid Rights Record

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We speak with CodePink co-founder Medea Benjamin on the aftermath of the largest oil fire in Cuba’s history, the sentencing of Saudi women rights activist Salma al-Shehab and the ballooning of the Pentagon budget. Benjamin is calling on the Biden administration to remove Cuba off a state sponsor of terrorism list — which she says is holding up the transfer of humanitarian funds to the country’s people. Benjamin also discusses the political reversal of Arizona Democratic Senator Kyrsten Sinema, who once joined antiwar protests but now supports unprecedented funding to the Pentagon.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, as we look at the aftermath of one of Cuba’s worst environmental disasters in decades and the largest oil fire in its history. Last month, a fire at an oil storage facility in the western province of Matanzas began after lightning struck part of the oil depot — one person killed, some 120 injured. The blaze worsened electricity outages on the island, which relies heavily on imported foreign oil to generate electricity, already facing an energy crisis due to soaring global fuel costs.

For more, we continue with CodePink’s Medea Benjamin, who’s been following this closely, spent many visits to Cuba. You tweeted, “It is infuriating that Biden administration sanctions on Cuba make it difficult for Cuba to effectively respond to the recent tragic fire. Tell Biden to take Cuba off the list of state sponsors of terrorism!” unquote. Can you lay out what’s happened since this fire, the largest in Cuba’s history?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Yes. It’s very difficult for groups like us in the United States, that want to help Cuba and have been raising money, to send the goods to Cuba, because the banks in the U.S. won’t deal with funds destined for Cuba. Companies don’t want to sell if you tell them that the destination is Cuba. We have to go around a lot of issues that the U.S. puts in the path. And that is because Cuba is on the state sponsor of terrorism list, which is absolutely ridiculous.

It was put on that list because Cuba had hosted rebels from Colombia for peace talks. Those peace talks are resuming now with the new government of Colombia, that has said Cuba should be off of that list. Cuba, if anything, is a state sponsor of global healthcare, sending doctors and nurses around the world, not a state sponsor of terrorism.

And so, we have a campaign we would love to people to join, on the CodePink website, to push Congress and Biden to take Cuba off that list, so that we can help Cuba in times like this to get the medicines, to help the burn victims, to reinvigorate the economy, especially inn Matanzas, where people are really suffering as a result of this fire.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Medea Benjamin, I wanted to now move on to Saudi Arabia. You’re the author of a number of books, including Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the U.S.-Saudi Connection. I want to ask you about the Saudi women’s rights defender Salma al-Shehab, who’s been sentenced to 34 years in prison over her advocacy. It’s reportedly the longest sentence ever given to a Saudi women’s rights activist. She was initially sentenced to a six-year prison term over tweets she posted critical of Saudi Arabia’s treatment of women. But an appeals court last week increased the sentence to 34 years behind bars and banned al-Shehab from leaving the kingdom for another 34 years. Human rights advocates are warning of worsening conditions for Saudi women as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman intensifies his crackdown on dissent and strengthens his relationship with the Biden administration.

MEDEA BENJAMIN: This is a barbaric sentence of a woman who’s a Ph.D. student in Leeds. She was going to Saudi Arabia to visit family and was detained there for her tweets. She had 2,000 followers — that was the extent of her Twitter supporters — and 159 followers on Instagram. This woman should not be in prison, and this draconian sentence is just unconscionable.

And it shows that MBS is no reformer. It shows that the United States should not be selling weapons to Saudi Arabia. The crackdown on women continues. And I think this is something that we should all be pushing the Biden administration to demand her release and to stop cozying up to the dictator, MBS, in Saudi Arabia.

AMY GOODMAN: Medea Benjamin, you are co-founder of CodePink. In our next segment, we’ll be talking about the Inflation Reduction Act, shaped by Democratic Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, once participated in a CodePink protest. And I wanted to get your response to this.

The Associated Press reported this week on how Sinema, quote, “single-handedly thwarted her party’s longtime goal of raising taxes on wealthy investors, received nearly $1 million over the past year from private equity professionals, hedge fund managers and venture capitalists whose taxes would have increased under the [new bill].” The AP reports “Sinema forced a series of changes” to the IRA, including cutting a proposed “carried interest” tax increase on private equity earnings while, quote, “securing a $35 billion exemption that will spare much of the industry from a separate tax increase other huge corporations now have to pay.”

Now, you have a connection to her because Democratic Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona once joined in CodePink protests, including against Israel and AIPAC. Your thoughts on her now?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, we don’t know what happened, how Kyrsten Sinema has been possessed, from being a one-time antiwar activist to being such an obstacle for any progress in the United States. We have watched her in horror and tried to protest her along the way. And now that we see that she is a supporter of every increase in the Pentagon budget, the enormous increases that are now coming out of the Biden administration, and increased more in the House and then increased more in the Senate, when you have people like Kyrsten Sinema, who disregards the real needs of people that are her constituents, and instead promotes the interests of big corporations, including the weapons industries.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, the military budget that President Biden has released for 2023, $773 billion; the total military budget reportedly exceeds $800 billion. Your response?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: We just talked about Afghanistan, and the U.S. wound down this war a year ago. You would think there would be a, quote, “peace dividend,” in which the Pentagon budget would go down. Instead, it’s increased over $100 billion from during the Trump time, and now the House has put another $37 billion on top of what Biden asked for, and the Senate will add more to that. It just shows how we have to build a stronger, more effective peace movement, together with environmentalists, people working for a good healthcare system, an end to the student debt. All of us have to come together to say this money should be taken out of the Pentagon budget and put into the real needs of people and the climate.

AMY GOODMAN: Medea Benjamin, we want to thank you for being with us, co-founder of CodePink and Unfreeze Afghanistan.

This is Democracy Now!, as we talk now about President Biden signing into law the sweeping $739 billion Inflation Reduction Act. Back in a minute.

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