Labor Day Weekend “No Apologies” Edition

August 29, 2014

Dear Friends:

Thank you for welcoming us back.

While we were on holiday last week, the Associated Press reported, “The U.S. Treasury Department’s inspector general has determined Jay-Z and Beyonce’s fifth-anniversary trip to Cuba last year was legal under rules allowing educational travel to the island.”

Did the AP get this story wrong? After all, Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart reached his own conclusion more than one year ago without going through the “formality” of an investigation: “It has become obvious that, in this case, the line into tourism was crossed. The Beyoncé and Jay-Z trip is a high profile example of why the ‘people-to-people’ category of travel should be eliminated. It amounts to tourism.”

Yet, after the Inspector General issued a report saying,we believe OFAC’s determination that there was no apparent violation of U.S. sanctions with respect to Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s trip to Cuba was reasonable (emphasis added),” we visited the Congressman’s Media Center and found no evidence that he’d retracted his statement.

As Stephen Colbert is fond of saying, we accept your apology.

Time and again, we’ve seen this “never explain, never apologize, never retract” strategy used by hardline defenders of U.S. sanctions over the years.

Remember when Cuba’s government scrapped the exit visa requirement established five decades ago that made it impossible for nearly all of Cuba’s citizens to travel abroad? At that time, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen dismissed the reform as propaganda. She said, “These so-called reforms are nothing more than Raúl Castro’s desperate attempts to fool the world into thinking that Cuba is changing, but anyone who knows anything about the communist 53-year old Castro dictatorship knows that Cuba will only be free when the Castro family and its lackeys are no longer on the scene.”

On behalf of the 185,000 plus Cubans who traveled abroad last year, including 66,000 to the U.S., and on behalf of Cuban dissidents –Guillermo Fariñas who received his Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought after he traveled to Europe last year, and Yoani Sánchez, welcomed from Miami to the White House – we accept her apology, too.

Remember when it seemed like every poll conducted in Florida and nationally supported rolling back the embargo and normalizing relations with Cuba? When Florida International University’s 2014 survey showed that Cuban Americans now support three big changes in U.S. policy – ending the embargo, ending restrictions on travel, and recognizing Cuba diplomatically – by the widest majority the survey has ever recorded?

Mauricio Claver-Carone, who supports increasing sanctions on Cuba, told readers of his blog to dismiss the findings of this highly regarded poll, saying “FIU has gone from having its polls sponsored by ideological non-profit organizations to ideological, for-profit lobbyists.” As a lobbyist himself immersed in partisan and ideological causes, this was hardly a strong argument against FIU’s data, confirmed by so many others.

Not to be outdone, when a reporter with the New York Times said to Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart, “Regardless of just the Cuban-American community, the American public, clearly a majority supports a change in policy in Cuba,” he responded, “That is an absolute lie.”

Gentlemen, you may start your apologies.

We could talk about the deceptive defenses of USAID’s Cuba programs, when Rep. Albio Sires, Democrat from New Jersey, was fast to his fax machine to issue his statement,“There is nothing new here.” We could also talk about their attacks on Cuba’s economic reforms, which have already enabled about 500,000 Cubans to find meaningful work, better pay, and greater autonomy in the private sector, and much more.

But, we don’t expect to hear apologies or anybody saying “I am sorry,” during this Labor Day weekend. We expect, instead, they’re out traveling like everyone else.

But, after Senator Marco Rubio compared coming to Cuba to visiting a zoo; after he scolded Tom Donohue of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for going to Cuba, because “the U.S. should not make it easier for the Castro regime to enrich itself and fund its repression with American dollars”; after Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen cited the Smithsonian for engaging in legal travel to the island, saying “It is deeply disappointing that the Smithsonian [Institution], primarily funded by American taxpayers, is facilitating access to U.S. dollars, which enables the Castro regime to make a hefty profit,” it would be nice if they were called to account for what they have said about travel, and spent at least one weekend feasting on their own words and at their own expense.

Then, perhaps Jay-Z and Beyonce could tell them, “apology accepted.”

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August Vacation and the Freedom to Travel

August 15, 2014

Just so you know, we are clearing out of the office for a week, which means we won’t be sending a fresh edition of the Cuba Central News Blast until August 29th. We’re going on vacation!

Of course, if we were working in Europe we’d have longer leave (and a better Cuba policy).  But, we still consider ourselves lucky, and still count ourselves as baffled that U.S. law frustrates the ability of most Americans to visit Cuba.

These restrictions on what Americans can do are imposed on us by the U.S. government in the name of advancing freedom in Cuba.  Which itself is altogether odd, when you consider that it is more restrictive, more bureaucratic, and more costly for nearly all Americans to receive permission from our government to visit Cuba than it is for Cubans to visit the United States or any other country.

Even worse, some policymakers in Congress would like to increase the restrictions on Americans who want to visit Cuba at a moment when more Cubans are coming to the U.S. and traveling the world than at any time since 1959.

Even worse than that, these same policy makers — the ones who restrict our rights to travel as a method for bringing democracy to Cuba — are also the biggest fans of our totally messed up “regime change” programs run out of USAID.  Read Fulton Armstrong’s recent piece about them here.   They want to shut the front door to Cuba while sending in a cast of amateurs and subversives through the backdoor.  To do what?  To break Cuba’s information blockade?   Isn’t that what travel’s for?

George Orwell could’ve designed the policy.  Some Americans — Cuban Americans, academics, and journalists — are more equal than others.  If you cannot be stuffed into one of these categories, you can journey to the island on a people-to-people program.  But it can be costly and the U.S. stipulates what you can do or can’t do once you arrive.

For most of Cuba’s post-revolutionary history, the government put tight restrictions on the right of their people to travel anywhere. The U.S. State Department is still handing out copies of a speech that President George W. Bush delivered in 2007, in which he said: “In Cuba it is illegal to change jobs, to change houses, to travel abroad…”

But, in January 2013, Cuba eliminated the requirement that its travelers obtain exit visas.  As Human Rights Watch reported this year, “Nearly 183,000 people traveled abroad from January to September 2013, according to the government. These included human rights defenders, journalists, and bloggers who previously had been denied permission to leave the island despite repeated requests, such as blogger Yoani Sanchez.”

The end of travel restrictions has begun a blossoming of economic and social openings for Cubans.  Cuentapropistas (self-employed Cubans, since it is now legal to change jobs) have reaped incredible material and professional gains from being able to purchase much needed inputs — at better prices and higher quality — and to meet their counterparts in the U.S., who share knowledge, experience and insight with them.

Our friend, Niuris Higuera, owner of Atelier Paladar in Havana, said she went home with “her head spinning from all the projects she wanted to develop in Cuba,” based on ideas she picked up in the States.

The experience was even more profound for young participants in a summer exchange program arranged by the Center for Democracy in the Americas and Cuba Educational Travel (CET) to bring four young Cubans to the U.S. to do homestays and internships.

As Collin Laverty of CET wrote us, Yoan Duarte, who graduated from the University of Havana in June and hopes to become a fashion designer, spent the summer in New York City shadowing some of the industry’s best. “The first few weeks I was constantly slapping myself in the face, thinking I was going to wake up in Havana at any moment. Now I’m eager to get back and put to work all the new skills I’ve acquired,” he said recently. Yoan plans to start his own clothing line upon return to Cuba.

Earlier today, the White House posted this paean to the travel industry, praising the growing number of jobs it is creating, the upward spiral of spending on travel and tourism-related goods and services, and how the U.S. hopes to welcome 100 million visitors per year by 2021.

We can only imagine what a stir would be created if Cubans and Americans of non-Cuban descent enjoyed the unrestricted right to exchange ideas and experience without any restrictions.  It would be good. It would be human.  But, today, that is not reality.

But the President can change that.  He has executive authority to broaden revenue-producing, information-exchanging, re-humanizing, and demystifying travel between the island and our country, which has outsized benefits compared to secreting USAID contractors into Cuba masquerading as advocates working on AIDS prevention, when they’re really trying to incite rebellion.

The choice ought to be clear to the President who, after all, got to go on vacation a week before us (which is, like, totally fair, ok?).

Happy vacation.

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Nixon Resigned, but “Dirty Tricks” in Cuba Live On

August 8, 2014

Today, August 8th, marks the fortieth anniversary of Richard Nixon’s decision to resign the presidency. History has been unkind to the 37th President of the U.S., and rightly so.  In one account of his resignation, Nixon is described as “paranoid, vicious, racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, with a casual disregard for anything besides his own standing.”  In another, presidential historian Robert Dallek calls Watergate, “the worst threat to America’s democratic institutions since the Civil War.”

In no review have we seen Nixon called to account for the demons he released in Chile; backing the overthrow of its democratically-elected President Salvador Allende, for his full-throated support for Allende’s successor, General Augusto Pinochet, or for Nixon’s blustering denials that the U.S. played any role whatsoever in Allende’s removal from office in a coup or for the carnage that followed.

 

In the Eisenhower Administration, Nixon was a champion of the Bay of Pigs invasion, the fiasco that ultimately dropped onto John Kennedy’s desk soon after he dispatched the Vice President in the 1960 election.  Declassified documents released by the National Security Archive say Nixon, who “proposed to the CIA that they support ‘goon squads and other direct action groups’ inside and outside of Cuba,” repeatedly interfered in the invasion planning.

 

As President, Nixon was mesmerized by the prospect that Allende could be elected Chile’s leader, and by the threat he could pull the penumbra of Communism across Latin America.  As Peter Kornbluh has reported, CIA director Richard Helms informed his senior covert action staff that “President Nixon had decided that an Allende regime in Chile was not acceptable to the United States.”  In a move that is familiar to Cuba watchers, Nixon ordered Helms and the CIA to “make the Chilean economy scream,” to prevent Allende from succeeding.

 

The CIA, as the New York Times reported, “spent $8 million in Chile supporting the political opposition and establishing a network of those committed to Allende’s downfall.”  When the coup took place, as Kornbluh writes in his book, The Pinochet File, thousands of Chileans were rounded up and taken to the National Stadium; several hundred were executed there. During Pinochet’s bloody 17-year dictatorship, thousands more were killed; to this day over 1,100 remain “disappeared.”

 

As with so much else, Nixon lied about Chile without relent.  He told David Frost in 1977 that “Allende was overthrown, eventually, not because of anything that was done from the outside, but because his system didn’t work in Chile and Chile decided to throw him out.” Just as he misled the nation about Watergate, “tricky Dick” grossly dissembled on the U.S. role in Chile.

 

Laid alongside what he wrought upon Chile, USAID’s activities in Cuba are mere “dirty tricks,” but we suspect Nixon would have loved them just the same; although, like us, he might be astonished by who oversees them in the White House’s Oval Office today.

 

Earlier this year, we reported on the development agency’s ZunZuneo scandal, disclosed by the Associated Press, in which USAID supplied an SMS service to Cubans with mobile telephones, never telling them it was created by the U.S. government or that they were being profiled politically.  USAID and the State Department loudly denied the truth of ZunZuneo’s regime change provenance.

 

As its Administrator Rajiv Shah told a Senate Subcommittee in April:

 

“To the extent that the AP story or any other comment creates the impression that this effort or any other goes beyond that for other ulterior purposes that is just simply inaccurate.”

 

Now, the AP has returned with a blockbuster on a group of “nearly a dozen [untrained] neophytes” from Latin America recruited for a mission by USAID contractor Creative Associates International to enter Cuba as tourists and “gin up rebellion” among the Cuban population; yes, this is eerily similar to what opened the door to Alan Gross’s prison cell that slammed shut behind him almost five years ago.

 

In one especially objectionable operation, they used their participation in an HIV prevention workshop as a “perfect excuse” to recruit political activists.

 

Senator Patrick Leahy (VT) called it “worse than irresponsible. It may have been good business for USAID’s contractor, but it tarnishes USAID’s long track record as a leader in global health.”

 

Yet, as William LeoGrande observed in the Huffington Post, “when AP blew the cover on the phony health program, USAID’s response was to stick by the ridiculous claim that it was just trying to help Cubans tackle a ‘community or social problem.’ USAID decried the AP story’s ‘sensational claims’ about the program’s subversive intent, declaring flatly, ‘This is wrong,’ but without actually denying any factual assertion in the piece.”

 

As Nixon sent the CIA into Chile, one member of its Directorate of Operations responded with this astute analysis:

 

“Covert operations to stop Allende from becoming president would be worse than useless. Any indication that we are behind a legal mickey mouse or some hardnosed play will exacerbate relations even further with the new government. I am afraid we will be repeating the errors we made in 1959 and 1960 when we drove Fidel Castro into the Soviet Camp.  If successful for the moment we would bring upon ourselves…a much worse image throughout Latin America and the World.”

 

The warning was ignored, and we know now what happened to Chile and to Nixon.  Will anyone persuade Obama to shut this “mickey mouse play” down?

 

A note: CDA will be taking a summer recess on the week of August 18. There will be no Cuba Central Newsblast on Friday, August 22.

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Friends Don’t Let Congress Drive Cuba Policy

August 1, 2014

Congress spent a month spinning itself into a frenzy over the crisis at the southern border of the U.S.

But, after weeks of photo ops, accusations that the Obama Administration created the crisis and failed to stop it, and shameful efforts to marginalize the children who fled poverty and violence in order to get here, nothing happened.

The least productive Congress in modern history has spun itself into a ditch.  It has made the migration crisis so dire and so toxic that even punitive legislation to fix it became too hot to handle.  Backed up against their own deadline for the August recess, neither the House nor the Senate could find enough votes to pass even band aid-sized fixes to a greater than tourniquet-sized problem.

As of this publication, the House leadership is considering how to press forward – making the legislation meaner to migrants, which dooms the bill to failure – or by taking the moral highroad and driving off on vacation.  In the meanwhile, both House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers (KY-5) and Speaker John Boehner issued statements telling the President to sweep up the mess by taking executive action (ironic, given the recent House decision to sue him for using his authority to implement health care reform).

There are media reports, such as here by the Wall Street Journal, saying the President will take broad action by September to address the crisis without waiting any longer for Congress to act.

While some in Congress hope the President will take executive action to fix the border, we and others have been urging the President to use his authority to make further reforms to U.S.-Cuba policy.

But, as the 44 signers of the letter supporting executive action on travel, negotiating with Cuba, and other issues, reminded President Obama in May, “Timing matters and this window of opportunity may not remain open indefinitely.”

What could close the window?  U.S. politics, as bad as it is, is likely to get worse.  There are just ninety-five days until the midterm elections take place; 156 days until the new Congress is seated.

What happens if today’s gridlocked Congress gives way to a 114th Session of Congress dominated by one party, as even non-partisan pundits predict today, and it takes on President Obama aggressively as he ends his term and the parties nominate candidates to replace him?  Does the window close and, if so, what happens to the hope for executive action then?

What happens if Charlie Crist, candidate for Governor in Florida, who has come out as anti-embargo and considered traveling to Cuba, is defeated in November by incumbent Governor Rick Scott in what is then interpreted as a referendum on Cuba policy reform?  What happens then?

What happens as policy changes that take long lead times – for example, solving the problem of a hemispheric boycott of the Summit of the Americas by inviting Cuba to participate – are eclipsed due to the passage of time?  What happens then?

What happens if Alan Gross’s physical health and mental state are as precarious as his legal team indicates?  If his condition deteriorates further, what happens then?

What happens if there is an abrupt change in the political structure in Cuba given the advanced ages of its senior leadership?  How could the window stay open then?

The President’s authority to take significant actions that reform Cuba policy, that free Alan Gross, whose imprisonment remains the chief obstacle to warming relations, and that speed the U.S. toward normalization, is greater than most people realize.  Once the Supreme Court acts, perhaps later this year, on a case with implications for the foreign policy powers of the presidency, the extent of his authority to make really big changes in U.S. – Cuba relations could grow larger still.

However, it is not the President’s power but his willingness to use it, given the political space he has and the time constraints that face him, which is pivotal now.  What also matters deeply – and we’re told, may matter more than many of us know – is whether the government in Havana understands just how close we are to the window of opportunity slamming shut.

President Obama’s actions in his first term to expand travel for Cuban families and people-to-people exchanges – described as modest here and disregarded as domestic politics by some in Cuba – continue to provide big benefits.  But, he can and should do a lot more.

To get there, it is President Obama and not Congress who must drive policy.  But, he should start revving the engine now before it is too late.

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Rubio Discovers Void, Proposes More of What Created It

July 25, 2014

In 1992, Brigadier General Simon P. Worden, then serving at the Department of Defense, coined the phrase “self-licking ice cream cones” to describe a curiosity of Washington bureaucratic life.  This is defined as a process that offers few benefits and exists primarily to justify its own existence.

The U.S. embargo against Cuba is a classic example of the self-licking ice cream cone at work.  When champions of the hardline policy identify problems created by the embargo, they argue for increasing the sanctions that triggered the problems in the first place.

Consider Senator Marco Rubio’s essay, “Marco Rubio on the Russian Threat to the Western Hemisphere,” published last week in Power Line.  Russia, like other nations, Rubio explains, has leapt into a “leadership void” in Latin America -

The Obama Administration’s failure to pursue a consistent, meaningful and proactive strategy in Latin America has left a leadership void that not only Russia but also China, Iran, North Korea and others have been able to exploit. In recent years, we’ve seen each of these nations move aggressively to enhance their alliances in the region, and expand their defense and intelligence relationships.

Rubio seems to be living in a world in which the U.S. can control events in our hemisphere, or at least act as gatekeeper, determining which nations can enter Latin America and for what purpose; the kind of Monroe Doctrine world that has been declared deadover and over again.

As we report below, the President of China, Xi Jinping, wrapped up his tour of Latin America this week with three days of activities in Cuba, culminating with his visit to the Moncada Barracks where the Cuban Revolution dates its start, 61 years ago tomorrow.   But Xi, as AFP reports, also “made a point during his tour of reaching out to countries often shunned by US and European investors, including Argentina, Cuba and Venezuela.”

President Xi came to the region with other leaders of the BRICS group (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) for a summit, during which they announced the creation of a $50 billion bank for infrastructure projects and a $100 billion crisis reserve fund described as a “mini-IMF.”

German media described the purpose of creating banks to fund public works and credit in the region as offsetting “the clout of western financial institutions” as well as bolstering investment in infrastructure.

This is especially meaningful to Cuba.  The Helms-Burton law, enacted in 1996, requires the United States government to oppose Cuba’s admission to the International Monetary Fund and every other relevant international financial institution – such as the International Development Association and the Inter-American Development Bank – until the Cuban government is replaced.

In the meanwhile, the Obama Administration is aggressively enforcing sanctions on a global basis against financial institutions that do business with Cuba.  Small wonder, then, that “Cuban official media are closely following the creation of a new $100 billion development bank that may offer lower-cost lending alternatives outside the realm of Washington and Wall Street,” as reported by CubaStandard.com this week.

Helms-Burton also requires the U.S. to oppose and vote against Cuba’s entry into the Organization of American States.  Barring Cuba from the OAS also results in Cuba’s exclusion from meetings of the Summit of the Americas.  This, in turn, has led both to threats by nations in the Hemisphere to boycott the next summit scheduled to take place in Panama in 2015 and to the strengthening of Latin American institutions and initiatives that exclude the U.S. and Canada.  The self-licking ice cream cone licks on.

Paradoxically, the BRICS bank breakthrough led former President Fidel Castro to write about the summit’s concluding statement, the Fortaleza Declaration, in a reflection which praised the leaders because they recognized “the important role which state enterprises play in the economy, as well as small and medium sized companies, as creators of employment and wealth.”

While Fidel Castro was praising the private sector, Rubio was turning red at Russia’s reemergence as a player in Cuba, as we discussed recently here and here.  Rather than conceding the role that U.S. sanctions played in creating the void that the BRICS were filling this month, the Senator from Florida suggested that we double-down instead.  To punish Cuba for welcoming Putin back, Rubio writes:

“[The] U.S. must continue denying the Castro regime access to money it uses to oppress the Cuban people and invest in foreign policy initiatives that actively challenge and undermine U.S. interests. The Obama Administration should roll back the economic benefits it has extended to the Cuban regime, in the form of expanded U.S. travel and remittances…”

By this logic, if hardline policies haven’t freed Alan Gross, haven’t stopped oil development in the Gulf of Mexico, haven’t blocked Cuba from hosting peace talks between Colombia and the FARC, haven’t brought the Cuban economy to its knees, and haven’t rallied Latin American nations to our side, sanctions supporters have just one answer: tighten them more.

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A Single Standard of Justice

July 18, 2014

In the news summary that follows, you will find reports about a new investigation into the USAID Cuban Twitter scandal, the growing impact of the increasingly tight enforcement of U.S. sanctions against Cuba and other nations on banks and global commerce, and the resumption of peace talks in Havana between Colombia and the FARC.

But first, we wanted to acknowledge what is unfolding in and near “a large wheat field dotted with purple flowers and Queen Anne’s lace,” in the lyrical prose of Sabrina Tavernise, a reporter for the New York Times.  This is where wreckage from Malaysia Flight 17 and the remains of some of its 298 crewmember and passengers came to rest in Eastern Ukraine after it was shot down a little more than a day ago.

The victims included 80 children, three of whom were infants, a number of AIDS researchers and activists, the spokesman for the World Health Organization, and a graduate student from Indiana University, who was a chemist and a member of the IU rowing team.

The circumstances surrounding the shoot-down of this airliner are reminiscent of an earlier tragedy during the Cold War, when a Korean Airlines Flight was shot down in 1983 by Soviet fighter pilots. That resulted in the loss of 269 people, including a Member of the U.S. Congress.

Today, our memories were also stirred by a catastrophe that took place on October 6, 1976; not half a world away, but here in the Americas. Then, like now, the victims, 48 passengers and 25 crew members, were civilians; many were also young, including all 24 members of the Cuban Fencing Team, five Guyanese medical students, the wife of a diplomat and others.

Their Cubana de Aviacion Flight 455 had just taken off from Barbados when at least one bomb exploded and knocked the plane out of the sky.  This was, as Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archives has often said, the first mid-air bombing of a civilian airliner in the Western Hemisphere.  All aboard – 57 Cubans, 11 Guyanese, and five North Koreans – were lost.

As we prepared this publication, the UN Security Council issued a statement calling for a “full, thorough and independent investigation” of the Malaysian airliner tragedy. Leaders from around the world called for an investigation and for accountability.

In the 38 years since the bombing of Flight 455, there has been no accountability for the loss of life; the families of the victims are not even mentioned in the news coverage of Malaysian Flight 17, as broadcast and print journalists recall similar incidents in the past.

Yet, Luis Posada Carriles, one of the two masterminds behind the bombing of the Air Cubana flight, continues to live and walk free in Miami, despite outstanding extradition requests from Cuba and Venezuela, which have yet to receive the response they merit from the U.S. government.

In some quarters, it will doubtless be controversial for us to remember that justice has still not been served in the case of Flight 455.

But our interest is in reforming Cuba policy to help the United States get past the double-standards that were deemed acceptable during the Cold War, but which are injurious to the national interest today, and adopt a single standard of justice in cases like this, now and into the future.  The dignity of the victims in these cases demands nothing less.

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Putin in Cuba, Groundhog Day in America

July 11, 2014

As Russian President Vladimir Putin visits Havana, and builds closer ties with Cuba’s senior leadership, it begs the question, “Haven’t we seen this movie before?”

Our six-decade stalemate with Cuba started at the height of the Cold War.  Cuba established formal diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union on May 8, 1960.  Washington, in turn, severed ties with Havana on January 3, 1961. By the time Vladimir Putin was a ten-year-old and Barack Obama was an infant, we had already lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis, the establishment of the Lourdes signals intelligence center near Havana, and more, which brought the heat of the Cold War within a hundred miles of our shores.

Back then, the Eisenhower and Kennedy Administrations decided it just would not do to have what was called a “Soviet puppet” in what some still call our “backyard.”  President Kennedy, as Cuba scholar Daniel Erikson wrote, reinterpreted the Monroe Doctrine “to support American efforts to contain the expansion of Soviet influence into the hemisphere.”

From the Bay of Pigs invasion to diplomatic isolation to the tightest economic sanctions imposed on Cuba, driving the Soviets out and punishing the Cubans for inviting them in has been what U.S. policy was all about.  This was matched, year after year, by Cuba’s resolute resistance to whatever wallops Washington delivered, sustained for a decade by Soviet subsidies.

The fall of the Berlin Wall led, ultimately, to the collapse of Cuba’s economy.  When the Soviet Union broke-up in 1991, Cuba lost annual assistance estimated at approximately $4.5 billion. Its economy contracted by 35% more or less overnight.  Public transport essentially ground to a halt.  Calorie consumption in the average Cuban’s diet fell 30%.  Export earnings fell 80%.  By January 1, 1992, when the Soviets cut off all military and economic assistance to Cuba, the allies had gone through a nasty break-up.

This was the moment to declare victory. With Russia dislodged from Cuba, the U.S. could have reinvigorated diplomacy and reached a modus vivendi with Cuba.  The objectives of our Cold War era policy having been satisfied, we could have even brought some long overdue tranquility to our relationships in Latin America.

Instead, U.S. policymakers decided to try and finish the job, passing the Cuba Democracy Act, which tightened the embargo screws even further, with the expectation that Cuba’s economic travails would do Cuba’s government in. It could have been called “The Never Miss an Opportunity to Miss an Opportunity Act of 1992.”

What happened?  Well, Cuba’s government didn’t fall under the weight of the U.S. embargo.  Raúl and Fidel Castro organized a peaceful transition of power. Our insistence on shutting Cuba out of regional forums like the OAS backfired on us.  Now, a little more than two decades later, Russia is back.

Without apparent irony, Yuri Ushakov, a presidential aide, told a reporter that the Kremlin considers Cuba to be “one of Russia’s ancient partners in Latin America.”  To advance that partnership, even before President Putin landed on Cuban soil, Russia agreed to write off about $32 billion in debt Cuba owed to the Soviet Union.

This is a big deal.  The Voice of Russia news service references one analyst, Caroline Kennedy (no, we’re not kidding), Head of the School of Politics, Philosophy, and International Studies at the University of Hull, as it observed, “the writing-off of the historic debt is about trying to reinvigorate a relationship that had fallen into abeyance in the 1990s – something Putin himself has said that he regrets in recent speeches.”

In addition to writing off Cuba’s debt, Russia has been written into Cuba’s strategy for recovering oil from the vast offshore reserves it has sought to exploit in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico since the 1990s.  As Bloomberg reports, during Putin’s visit, two Russian state oil producers “plan to sign an agreement with Cuban company Cupet SA to carry out joint operations in Cuba’s offshore areas.”

It might interest you to know that on Putin’s last trip to Cuba fourteen years ago, he pulled the plug on the Lourdes signal intelligence center as his personal affirmation that the Cold War was over, a gesture he believed was snubbed and, as Progreso Weekly reported, he also reviewed the status of Cuba’s backlogged debt payments for previously acquired Soviet loans.

We have seen this movie before.  It’s called “Groundhog Day.”  In that film, history on February 2nd repeats itself day after day until our love-smitten TV weatherman sets aside his self-destructive behavior and ends the tragic time loop by repairing his relationships and doing right in the world.   The cold of winter gives way, finally, to spring.

“Keep in mind that when Castro came to power,” President Obama said last year in Miami, “I was just born. So the notion that the same policies that we put in place in 1961 would somehow still be as effective as they are today in the age of the Internet and Google and world travel doesn’t make sense.”

Whether it’s inviting Cuba to join the Summit of the Americas, engaging with Cuba directly to protect the coast of Florida from the potential risk posed by a Ruso-Cuban drilling accident, or using his ample executive authority to go bolder and deeper, surely President Obama can summon the imagination and courage, not to drive Russia out, but to get our country back in the game.

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