Peace and the Parallel Universe

February 5, 2016

Blessed are the peacemakers, it says in Matthew 5:9 – and the peacemakers seem to converging in Havana.

One week from today, the leaders of Roman Catholicism and the Russian Orthodox Church will meet in Cuba to try and advance the healing process between Eastern and Western Christianity, churches which have been in schism since 1054.

In coming to Cuba to seek peace, Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill I are not alone.

For two years, a tightly held negotiation between the United States and Cuba ended six decades of hostilities between our two countries. The diplomatic effort to normalize relations continues to roll forward in both capitals.

Since 2014, Cuba and the European Union have been negotiating a new Political Dialogue and Cooperation Agreement to replace the tired, confrontational framework that has existed for nearly twenty years.  The talks, which are alternating between Brussels and Havana, will resume in Cuba later this year.

Most of all, talks to end the fifty-year civil war between the Government of Colombia and the FARC guerrilla movement, a conflict that has claimed more than a quarter-million dead, are “Heading toward the Finish Line in Cuba,” according to Ginny Bouvier‘s most recent post.

While the Colombian and FARC peace delegations deserve the lion’s share of the credit – they’ve been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize – Cuba’s role in hosting the negotiations continues to win praise.

As President Obama said at a White House ceremony with Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos at his side, “I want to think all of the parties for their efforts, including the government of Cuba for hosting the talks.  We all know that it’s easier to start wars than to end them.”

President Santos replied in part by saying, “I also believe that I speak for all the people in Latin America and the Caribbean, all the people who live south of the Rio Grande, when I say to you, thank you.  Thank you, Mr. President, for your audacity in reestablishing diplomatic relations with Cuba.”

The President was audacious, indeed, for ushering in a period of diplomacy that has produced resumed relations, reopened embassies, prisoner releases, policy reforms and more.  In a world beset by tragic struggles and disorder, it’s hard not to enjoy the emergence of Cuba, once the epicenter of the Cold War conflict, as a 21st Century staging point for reconciliation.

Somehow, the editorial writers at the Washington Post have figured out a way not to feel the love.

The Post didn’t allow a day to go by before it unloaded on President Obama’s decision to normalize relations with Cuba.  On December 17th, 2014 they called his diplomatic breakthrough “an undeserved bailout” of the Castro regime.  They also called the administration “naïve” for believing it would help transform U.S. relations with Latin America.

After just six months, the Post denounced the deal as “one-sided,” and actually took pleasure in the fact that Congress was stopping the appointment of a U.S. Ambassador to Cuba. In September, it accused Pope Francis of appeasement for his role in bringing America and Cuba together.  In October, they slammed the overhaul of U.S. policy again for being “one-sided.” And on Sunday, they roared again.

Their editorial, Failure in Cuba, topped by a dated photograph of President Raúl Castro sitting with Fidel Castro taken in 2011, declares that President Obama’s opening to Cuba “seems to be failing to live up to its declared goals.”  After concluding that nothing positive has materialized, “the president’s only response,” they say, “has been more unilateral concessions.”

In the Post’s parallel universe, in one year’s time, nothing has been accomplished. Cuba has not unilaterally dismantled its system in the last year, just as it didn’t for more than fifty years under the old policy.  But that’s the wrong metric.

In his well-argued piece, Inconsistent Impatience on Cuba, Paul Pillar pillages the Post for its way-stale argument giving the administration a single year to reverse decades of failed policy in Cuba.

“Evidently half a century,” Pillar writes, “through ten different U.S. administrations, is deemed insufficient time to judge whether the policy of isolation can ever achieve any useful results. But the editorial criticizes President Obama’s opening for not bringing about a ‘sea change in Cuba’ during the brief time it has been in effect.”

Short of a sea-change, as a critic of U.S. policy, Carlos Lopez wrote this week, “Opening telecommunications, increasing tourism, and embracing foreign culture into the island are all signs that Obama’s policy of engagement has resulted in a Cuba with less restrictions and barriers.”

Engage Cuba made a similar point this week.  “Before December 17, 2014…there were zero Wi-Fi hotspots outside of hotels and zero in the homes of Cubans. At the end of 2015, there were 65 Wi-Fi hotspots, and the Cuban government has announced it will add 80 more during 2016.

These Wi-Fi hotspots, a priority for President Obama’s new policy, are gateways for Cubans to expand their borders.  “We are seeing a whole new quality of public space,” Miguel Antonio Padrón Lotti, a Cuban professor of urban planning, told The Guardian.  “Cubans have always socialized on the streets, but now we can interact with the wider world at the same time.”

It’s not just hotspots, but also progress propelled by painstaking diplomacy – on commerce, criminal justice and fugitives, migration and fraud – with more left to be done.

Rather than rolling the policy back, as several prominent candidates for the U.S. presidency would have us do, or stand and wait until a new Congress is elected capable of dealing with Cuba policy legislation (talk about a parallel universe), we enjoy the elan of President Francois Hollande, who called this week on President Obama to “go all the way (how French),” and end the embargo himself.

Now, the President’s authority probably doesn’t really extend that far.  In fact, Congress and the Supreme Court have taken steps in recent days to call into doubt the powers of his office that he has used to reform Cuba policy since 2009.

But, as Bill LeoGrande explained in Foreign Policy this week, there’s much that he can do with the power he’s got within the time left in his term to use it.  LeoGrande proposed presidential actions to lift bans on U.S. investments, allow a range of Cuban imports into the U.S., free individuals to make people-to-people trips to Cuba, and make significant changes in the regulatory regime and its enforcement so that U.S. banks embrace the idea of commerce with Cuba, rather than thwarting it in fear of being fined.

The choice seems pretty clear; rather than returning the policy to the Post’s parallel universe, take the more promising path with the Pope, the Patriarch, President Santos and the FARC toward progress and peace.

Our Recommendations

Cuba says it will launch broadband home Internet projectMichael Weissenstein, Miami Herald

On Sunday January 31, Cuba’s government announced that it would launch broadband Internet service in two Havana neighborhoods. ETECSA, the state telecommunications company intends to use fiber optic connections from Chinese telecom operator, Huawei, to provide Internet service to homes in the historic Old Havana neighborhood. This development comes a year after Cuba set up dozens of public Wi-Fi hotspots, and will serve as a pilot program for future wireless telecom projects.

Obama Needs to Stop Playing Small Ball With Cuba or a Republican in the White House, backed by a fearful, anti-Cuba Congress, could undo — in an instant — all his good work,William M. LeoGrande, Foreign Policy

Given reluctance by Congress to take up legislation to repeal the embargo, the Obama administration’s actions in Cuba have relied on the use of executive authority.  Should a Republican win the White House in 2016, Professor LeoGrande warns that President Obama’s unilateral executive actions can easily be revoked.  In the year remaining, however, he lists a series of actions the administration could take to make Cuba policy reform progress harder to roll back.

Inconsistent Impatience on CubaPaul Pillar, National interest

Paul Pillar responds to a Washington Post editorial that labels President Obama’s Cuba opening as a “failure” that is “not leading to positive change.” Pillar compares this criticism to similar backlash against the administration’s nuclear agreement with Iran. He suggests that critics of Obama’s diplomatic initiatives fail to assess – or even propose – alternative policies, have unrealistic, anachronistic, and inconsistent expectations for potential changes, and tend to be “impatient” in their views of diplomacy.

NASA explores cooperation with Cuba on science projectsFox News Latino

NASA researcher Brent Holben’s recent trip to Cuba underscores potential research collaboration between the US and Cuba. Holben urged Cuba to join the recently created Caribbean Aerosol Network, a component of Aeronet, which is a network of robotic instruments basically used to study aerosols, tiny particles suspended in the air whose high concentration has a negative impact on human health.

U.S. and Cuban researchers begin neuroscience collaborations, Becky Hamm, Science

U.S. and Cuban scientists have identified areas of neuroscience for research collaboration. The areas include magnetic resonance imaging technology, neuroinformatics, neurodevelopment, and a plan to establish an international nonhuman primate research center in Cuba. Mark Rasenick, a professor of physiology and psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a fellow of both AAAS and the Cuban Academy, noted the positives of this academic relationship with Cuba but added, “We still have a number of impediments to research, and in order to fix them, we need to end the embargo.”

Port of Miami preparing for daily ferry service to CubaDouglas Hanks, Miami Herald

The Miami Herald recently uncovered documents showing that Port of Miami has been in negotiations to open ferry service to Havana for a year. However, delays from the Cuban side have stalled progress, as Cuba prioritizes other construction projects.

Constitutional Reform in Cuba: Why, how, and with whom?Eileen Sosin Martínez, Progreso Semanal

Progreso Semanal offers an updated look into proposed constitutional changes in Cuba. On February 24, 2013, President Raul Castro announced that he was introducing changes to the constitution. The first proposal outlined was the need to introduce term limits on politicians. At most, they would be able to serve two five-year terms in office. Three years later, we still do not have many additional details on the reforms. Professor and investigator at the Center for the Study of Public Administration, Julio Antonio Fernandez, imagines that we will see a clearer proposal at the upcoming April 2016 Party Congress, following the same logic of reform put forth in 1992.

Cuba, through rose-colored glasses, Yoani Sánchez, Miami Herald

Sánchez describes the stark contrast between the prosperous and thriving Cuba envisioned by the Cuban government, journalists, and media, and the reality in which sickness, censorship, and poverty affect citizens on a daily basis.

Cuba for sale: “Havana is now the big cake – and everyone is trying to get a slice,

Oliver Wainwright, Guardian

Tourism from the U.S. to Cuba has surged by 40% since president Obama announced a thaw in diplomatic relations between the two countries in December 2014. According to the IMF, an end to the U.S. economic embargo on the island could see the number of American tourists to Cuba skyrocket to 10 million per year.

Week In Review: Trade, Travel, and Telecomms

January 29, 2016
This week, President Obama again used his executive authority to expand travel and trade with Cuba.  The new travel rules have different dimensions to them, but they will surely intensify the cultural connectivity between our two countries.
As press accounts again proved this week, the President’s earlier reforms are driving up the number of U.S. visits to the island substantially. While increased trips provide cashmoney needed for Cubans and their economy, the surge of Americans, as Reuters reported, may be testing the capacity of the Cuban tourism industry.
While Cuba’s government unrolled the red carpet for a delegation of U.S. government officials and industry leaders for ongoing negotiations about telecommunications,Ambassador Daniel A. Sepulveda (lead diplomat on the talks) worries that slow progress in striking deals to improve connectivity and the island’s high-tech infrastructure derives at least in part from a lack of trust (seems like a well-founded concern to us).
With lots of news – and new ideas – to consider, we sat down on the floor of our modest offices (cue sad trombone and then send donations) to see how the pieces fit together.
Reforms Resume in 2016
As the New York Times, the BBC, and myriad other news agencies reported, the Commerce and Treasury Departments made substantial changes in the rules relating to the U.S. embargo (still in place, sigh…) as they affect travel, exports, activities by U.S. business in Cuba and more.
If readers want to hash through the details, may we recommend the two Departments’ joint press release (viewed here), and Akin-Gump’s detailed summary can be accessed here.
There’s much to like about the changes.  As the BBC reports, “The key difference between this announcement and earlier efforts to ease trade with Cuba by the Obama administration is that this time the new rules will apply to trade with Cuban government agencies.”  This means the President’s reforms – which previously benefitted Cuban individuals, private entrepreneurs – are getting bolder.
The reforms unveiled this week relieve restrictions on payment and financing terms, allow exports for the construction of infrastructure and energy facilities, and will give applicants in the telecommunication field an easier time getting their exports licensed as well.
Travel & Culture
The new rules will increase travel to Cuba from the U.S. even further.  As Reutersreported this week, “Cuba received a record 3.52 million visitors last year, up 17.4 percent from 2014. American visits rose 77 percent to 161,000, not counting hundreds of thousands of Cuban-Americans.”  These numbers will rise – since the regulations give more travelers more legal means to get Cuba for business and professional activities – and because the rules anticipate more travelers arriving by commercial aircraft and ferries and cruise liners.
With demand comes pressure on supply and so, according to XINHUA, Cuba’s Tourism Ministry is considering an increase in the country’s 63,000 hotel rooms, and building more resorts and golf courses with foreign investment.
The Obama administration is also making it easier for U.S. actors and producers, writers and musicians, to work and perform in Cuba, and engage with Cubans in the process of creating their art.
We have come a long way since the days when Cuban artists of the caliber of the lateIbrahim Ferrer, of the Buena Vista Social Club, and Manuel Galbán were barred by the Bush administration from picking up their Grammy Awards, incidents our friend Jackson Browne recalled in his essay, Songs of Cuba, Silence in America.
Fast forward to the forward-leaning rules issued by the Obama administration.  As theWall Street Journal observed, “Moves by art and culture travelers to reconnect with Cuba are far outpacing efforts to reopen business with America’s former Cold War foe.”
Travel Moving at Warp Speeds, While Telecom Diplomacy is Like Dial-up Connection
While progress on cultural exchange and travel itself is moving at warp speed, the movement on telecommunications is more like dial-up, despite our earnest efforts at digital diplomacy. Officials at Cuba’s Ministries for External Relations, Communications, and Trade and Foreign Investment said this week’s round of talks took place in a positive climate.   The Cuba’s government takes pride in having added 58 hotspots, lowering the cost of access, and granting roaming agreements to Verizon and Sprint.
Ambassador Sepulveda has a warm relationship with his Cuban counterparts.  Outside the negotiating room, he delivered a speech at the University of Information Sciences and talked to Cuban bloggers – all the while delivering a pretty clear message: Cuba should do more.
He challenged Cuba to increase access, increase investment in faster technologies, and more closely integrate the Internet into what he calls their “industrial” policies (something Cuba already has done). He is also asking Cuba to allow for a new submarine cable from Miami to Havana which, given the history between the two cities, and recent comments by Cuban American leaders reported by NBC News, made us wonder how his counterparts reacted to that.
Sepulveda, who clearly feels tyrannized by the clock – his term in office ends with President Obama’s – wants the Cubans to do more and do it faster.  He put it this way in an interview with Milena Recio, “I perceived that they are open to talks; it’s just going to be a very slow conversation. [We in the U.S. are] not used to this pace of progress. But again, I respect that, they have the right to move at the pace they want.”
So long as we have been watching, Cuba has operated strictly by how it defines its own national interest and – although we agree, there are few foreign governments or audiences better attuned to U.S. politics – we expect they view the calendar with slightly less dread; they’ve seen administrations and reforms come and go.  While they doubtlessly appreciate, truly, what President Obama has done, and appreciate the risks he has taken, we imagine they will continue to move at their own speed, even as the end of the Obama era is coming.They will determine their priorities.  The notion that Cuba’s government is not rushing pell-mell into the arms of U.S. high technology companies cannot be surprising.
Telecommunications is an investment; it involves money out, compared to tourism, which is money in.  Cuba’s government, as we previously reported, is forecasting slower growth in 2016, dragged down by falling commodity prices, especially when the price fetched by its ally Venezuela’s crude oil has fallen below the cost of production. Tourism cannot offset those losses or others like the future decline in cigar sales if the most recent tobacco crop is has been hit as hard as reports say.
But, really, the problem is confidence.  Yes, U.S. companies want signs from Cuba that their investments will be welcomed and the normal rules of doing business overseas will apply to them on the island.  However, in ways that don’t trouble the Cubans about tourism, the issue that is probably slowing down progress on telecommunications is trust on the Cuban side.
Although Cuba’s Vice President, Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, is on Facebook (we know someone who friended him and got friended back), he’s been quoted by Cuba’s media saying that it is the intent of “imperialists” to use the Internet as a way to destroy the Revolution.
It’s not hard to imagine the reaction when Ambassador Sepulveda offers solid advice about how  the Internet will speed Cuba’s economic modernization, that his counterparts hear the traditional American swagger at the heart of “democracy assistance,” that we have the answers to Cuba’s problems, which gives them pause.
On the other hand, we love the fact that the grim days of squeezing Cuba through sanctions and isolation are in the rear view mirror, and that diplomacy and reform – at least until January 20, 2017 – are the order of the day.   Of course, time is of the essence, but we really need to get this right.

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Cuba and the Audacity of Hope, 2016 Edition

January 22, 2016

Last week, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough offered a teaser about the year ahead: He said, “We’ll do audacious executive actions throughout the course of the year, I am confident of that,” in comments reported by The Hill.

We can’t say what those executive actions involve since “McDonough did not hint on which areas the president will sidestep Congress and set policy on his own.” Since, however, Congress may not act, and there’s much within the President’s power to expand on the new policy, and to trim back on the old, we hope Cuba’s on the agenda.

Trim back on the old? As we have said before, if President Obama’s new direction in Cuba policy were like a painting, it would be more like pentimento than an entirely new piece of work. This is when traces of an underlying image become visible despite the top layers of more recently applied paint. In seeing such a painting, the viewer must ask her or himself whether the artist changed his mind thoroughly, or if the old parts peeking through suggest indecision present in the artist’s mind.

Yesterday, USAID published a notice reminding us – and we thank Tracey Eaton, the journalist who brought it to our attention – that the U.S. government is still funding activities with regime-change money under programs enacted by Congress to overthrow Cuba’s government, despite the renewal of diplomatic relations.

Dressed up as “humanitarian assistance to political prisoners and their families, and politically marginalized individuals and groups in Cuba,” Tracey underscores the circular reasoning on which the $6 million grant program is based. He cuts to the core in his typically genteel way:

I think it’s worth pointing out that many of those arrested for political reasons are taking part in programs funded by the U.S. government or U.S. government-financed organizations. I am not arguing for or against such programs or saying there are no human rights violations in Cuba, but I find it interesting that existing U.S. government programs are used to help justify and fuel the need for new programs.” [our emphasis]

The timing – and of course the substance – of this announcement is really telling. This declaration, and it’s not the first, that the U.S. is still in the regime change business comes one month to the day after the USAID Inspector General released a sharply critical report on how the agency’s recently-exposed debacles raised serious legal and regulatory questions about how these programs are administered.

The IG report focused on the faux twitter program, ZunZuneo, which “was secretly created to stir unrest and raised concerns about the legality and covert nature of the project,” and another effort in which an HIV prevention workshop was used as “a guise to recruit young Cubans to anti-government activism” and how it “undermined the credibility of USAID’s health work around the world.”

Note and reminder: the existence of both programs was brought to light by excellent investigative reporting by the Associated Press.

Just these two programs, the IG reported, were plagued by conflicts of interest (a fancy, high-dollar contract was awarded to a grantee’s family member without competition) and needlessly high expenses. Because these efforts were undertaken covertly to prevent the Cuban government from detecting or disrupting them, excessive secrecy led to the creation of bank accounts to place agency money in the Cayman Islands, and to practices that concealed to Cuban participants the knowledge that they were involved in programs funded by regime change dollars.

But, their government did find out. The IG determined that the programs lacked safeguards to prevent them from being penetrated by the Cuban government and subverted by Cuban intelligence, and left Cubans participating in the programs vulnerable to being denigrated and threatened.

So, it’s reasonable to ask – did USAID take any of the IG’s findings on board, or is it happening again? There’s language in yesterday’s new announcement – “the primary goal of the program,” USAID seeks creative and innovative approaches in the design and delivery of the monies – that begged questions about what is really being funded.

Tellingly, USAID did offer cautions informed by Alan Gross’s arrest – to avoid the use of American citizens, recruit personnel who are fluent in Spanish and who’ve worked in Cuba before, and make it clear that recipients can’t sue USAID if they are caught, injured or killed (literally) – suggesting that something bigger is afoot than the delivery of humanitarian assistance.

Undoubtedly, there’s a regime change devotee in the USAID bureaucracy ready to dismiss these legitimate questions with the pettifoggery that we heard from the agency when ZunZuneo and the ‘not-really-an HIV-workshop’ debacles were first exposed. Then, the audacity of deceit ruled the day.

So, yes, we’d favor a long list of executive actions to increase travel and trade with Cuba, especially ones that free U.S.-Cuba commerce from the shadow of excess enforcement stemming from the old policy.

But, we’d like to see more. From the outset, President Obama’s new direction in Cuba policy was predicated on the idea that it does not serve America’s interests, or the Cuban people, to try and push Cuba toward collapse.

In 2016, is it too audacious for the President to cut the funding for – or at least reform – these efforts, so that the entire government, including USAID, speaks with one, clear voice when it comes to engaging with Cuba during his last year in office?

We can only hope.

Read the rest of this entry »

Stop and Smell (the Cuban) Coffee (or what would Goethe say?)

January 15, 2016

As he departed the presidency in 1961, Dwight D. Eisenhower summarized the foreign policy accomplishments of his administration. Ending the Korean War and preserving peace in the Middle East were among them.  But, he also noted a few of the world’s continuing dangers, starting with what he called the “Communist penetration of Cuba” which he labeled a real and serious threat.

Defining the challenges of his final year in office, President Obama used his last State of the Union address to make his most forceful appeal to Congress to “lift the embargo” on Cuba since he announced the new U.S. policy toward Cuba in December 2014.

“Fifty years of isolating Cuba,” he said, “had failed to promote democracy, setting us back in Latin America. That’s why we restored diplomatic relations, opened the door to travel and commerce, and positioned ourselves to improve the lives of the Cuban people. You want to consolidate our leadership and credibility in the hemisphere? Recognize that the Cold War is over. Lift the embargo.”

Congress had heard the appeal before; during last year’s address, after explaining the purpose behind his shift in policy, the President said, “Congress should begin the work of ending the embargo.”

Tuesday night he hit it harder – making it two years in a row that he urged Congress to take down what presidents dating back to Eisenhower had built up.

Everything is happening so fast.  Our compassion, concerns, and anxieties are pulled in a dozen different directions.  But, isn’t this a time when we could stop and admire the beauty of this historical moment?

Two years in a row a U.S. president actually said the state of the union would be stronger by ending the embargo against Cuba.  “The mere knowledge that such a work could be created makes me twice the person I was,” Goethe said.

Tuesday night we felt that way, too; even more, after dozens of Members of Congress heard what the president said and rose from their seats to applaud.  Stop for a minute and smell that coffee!

As we previously reported, there is majority, bipartisan support nationally for ending the embargo, including among Floridians and Cuban Americans.   With Congress hesitant to act, the upcoming election, and the impending close of President Obama’s second term, there is a greater sense of urgency in Washington and Havana to push Cuba policy forward in 2016.

In just a few weeks, Representatives Tom Emmer (MN-6) and Kathy Castor (FL-14), lead sponsors of legislation to repeal the trade embargo, are bringing a partisan delegation from the U.S. Congress to visit Cuba to build support for opening travel and trade relations with Cuba among the new or uncommitted colleagues who will accompany them.

Aside from the difficult task of adopting such sweeping legislation in an election year, diplomacy has brought changes to the U.S.-Cuba relationship, such as the restoration of commercial airline service, direct mail service, and direct phone service, and U.S. ports and U.S. businesses are seeking ways to use the new authorities granted by administration policies to create commercial relationships with Cuban counterparts. All of this builds on the policy opening in anticipation of a new president taking office in January 2017.

Josefina Vidal, who leads the Cuban side of the normalization talks, told the official Cuban News Agency that she’s “beginning to feel a certain bit of realism as the electoral process in the United States approaches; we don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Neither do we.  But, just like Governor McAuliffe hit the accelerator of the 1957 Chevy he drove through the streets of Havana during his trade mission to Cuba last week, we’re part of a larger effort to encourage policymakers, business leaders, advocates and experts to wrench as much change as possible out of U.S. policy before the next president is sworn in.  We have a year and hope to put it to good use. Read the rest of this entry »

Cuba and the U.S. – The State of the Reunion

January 8, 2016

In the days before President Obama’s 2015 State of the Union address, we wrote about the promising dimensions of his new direction in Cuba policy – it’s strong emphasis on expanding travel, encouraging diplomacy, broadening engagement by “ball players and marine scientists, artists and experts,” and bringing the business community farmers, businesses, and individuals with property compensation claims into the process to increase the momentum for reform.

In the last year, all of this – and more – has come to pass.

During the first days of the New Year, we got to see first-hand the benefits of the policy when we joined a trade delegation led by Virginia’s Governor Terry McAuliffe – a visit that produced cooperation agreements between the Cuban and Virginia Port Authorities, and between Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Havana.

The first clears the way for businesses in Virginia to build and grow relationships with counterparts in Cuba; the second means students from both countries will be able to expand their horizons through academic exchanges and joint research projects.

McAuliffe, who delighted onlookers by driving a 1956 pink Chevrolet Bel Air named Lola around Havana, concluded his visit to Cuba by previewing an appeal he promised to make to Paul Ryan, the House Speaker, Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, and to Members of the House and Senate across the political aisle:

“2016 needs to be the year that we move our relationship forward, that we end this embargo, and we do the right thing for the citizens of the United States of America and the citizens of Cuba.”

He also told reporters, he’d be surprised if the President didn’t visit Cuba. The President’s Deputy National Security Advisor, Ben Rhodes, delivered the same message to reporters over the weekend, as he laid out the administration’s foreign policy priorities for the coming year.

What’s exciting to us is that the administration continues moving forward on efforts to broaden and deepen the reforms. Reuters broke an exclusive story this afternoon saying the U.S. government is finally considering putting to an end the program that lures Cuban doctors and nurses off their foreign postings with promises of easy entry into the United States.

A year ago, Rep. Rosa DeLauro and more than a dozen colleagues urged the administration to cancel this program, especially after lauding what Cuba had done to fight the Ebola outbreak in Western Africa. Cancelling this program – conceived under President George W. Bush as a brain-drain effort – is not just consistent with President Obama’s new direction, it is long overdue.

The progress we have seen in the last year was made possible by smart and strategic policy initiatives but also by patient diplomacy that set aside the kinds of distractions which left us trapped in the Cold War mindset

If this can be the steady state of our diplomacy it augers well for the state of the U.S.-Cuba reunion.

Read the rest of this entry »

Christmas Twist: Cuba’s On Obama’s Fourth Quarter “Bucket List”

December 24, 2015

Last Spring, when President Obama addressed the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, he said to the reporters on hand at the annual ‘Washington Celebrates Itself’ Gala, “Welcome to the fourth quarter of my presidency.”

“I am determined to make the most of every moment I have left.” He said, “After the mid-term elections, my advisors asked me, ‘Mr. President, do you have a bucket list?’…Well, I have something that rhymes with bucket list.”

In a series of punchlines that the White House transcript dutifully reports as eliciting laughter and applause, the president mentioned taking executive action on immigration, climate change, and Cuba policy.

Funny thing was, he meant it. Roll the tape forward to this month – roll past diplomatic relations, Cuba getting off the terror list, new embassies, new travel and trade rules, State, Commerce, Agriculture Secretary visits and other changes – and the President is now telling the Wall Street Journal that he is prepared to do more.

Before considering what specific items that might add to the President’s “bucket list,” let’s take a step back and look at the big picture.

Last year, when President Obama announced he was determined to normalize relations with Cuba, he stood up against the policy he’d inherited from his predecessors, saying it “does not serve America’s interests, or the Cuban people, to try to push Cuba toward collapse.”

The old policy – immiserating Cubans to force their government to succumb to our demands – was both cruel and futile. No American president had ever conceded that truth.

Secretary of State John Kerry was captured by the same thought on a walk he took following the flag-raising at the U.S. Embassy in Cuba. “Walking the streets of Old Havana, and seeing the faces of young Cubans, I felt the futility of trying to make them fit their dreams into a Cold War straight-jacket.

“They deserve more than that,” Kerry wrote, and “through our diplomacy we hope to help them achieve more than that.”

Yes, in 2016, we can expect to see intensified diplomacy between Cuba and the U.S. on a host of issues – law enforcement, property claims, human trafficking and human rights – that our two countries never discussed when the thrust of U.S. policy was trying to make Cuba’s system fail.

But, the president apparently will use what remains of his fourth quarter to do more than that.

“On Cuba,” the Journal says, “that means taking additional executive actions so Americans become accustomed to traveling to the island-nation 90 miles off the coast of Florida and U.S. businesses are deeply invested there.”

Reforms already implemented by the President this year have boosted travel by Americans to Cuba by over 70 percent over travel in 2014, as the Nation reported last week.  The surge in travelers will help fill the seats of planes poised to take advantage of the new agreement between Cuba and the U.S. to resume regularly scheduled commercial service.

But short of repealing the ban on tourist travel, which requires an Act of Congress, the President can substantially increase those visits by applying to individuals the same rules that currently apply to trips by groups under the people-to-people. He has the authority to do that today.

As Senators Flake and Leahy said in their letter to the President last week, he has the authority to increase substantially the flow of commerce between our countries. They advocate changes in regulations to increase access for Cubans to U.S. tools, equipment, and consumer products, and expanding the ability of Cubans in private enterprise to benefit from U.S. services in the areas of finance and planning.

Despite helpful and well-meaning policy changes the President already ordered to lighten the regulatory burden on companies who want to do business in Cuba, Bill LeoGrande makes a strong case – as others have – that U.S. firms are still “terrified” of running afoul of sanctions and incurring ruinous financial penalties.

To alleviate regulatory risks, LeoGrande says:

“Obama could license U.S. businesses to provide credit to Cuban customers to stimulate nonagricultural trade (agricultural credits are prohibited by law). He could authorize Cuban banks to establish correspondence accounts with U.S. banks to facilitate payments to Cuban customers. Finally, he could issue a general license to U.S. banks to process dollar-denominated transactions conducted by foreign banks (so-called “U-turn” transactions) that must be processed through a U.S. financial institution.”

Let’s be clear. Cuba has a lot of work that it can do to increase economic activity, as the government has already pledged to do, so it can address the island’s economic crisis and create a future for the Cuban people that is more compelling than migrating to the United States.
Cubans want this relationship to work for a host of reasons, not the least of which is to increase prosperity by increasing trade and travel income from the United States. Not all Cubans, as Tracey Eaton documents here, are sharing in the increased prosperity driven in part by President Obama’s reforms. Our friend Portia Siegelbaum tweeted a forlorn picture of dimmer Christmas lights in Havana than she saw, as we did, one year ago.

The President has the capacity – and now we’re told the willingness – to drive this new policy much farther in the time remaining in the fourth quarter of his presidency. He can act knowing that his new policy has put him on the right side of history, and that taking additional steps will improve the lives of those his policy is designed to benefit – the Cuban people.
Sure, there will be dissent among the dwindling numbers of naysayers who want America to go back to the Cold War ways of doing things. To them, he can just say, “Bucket. Let’s make these changes irreversible,” and plough forward with more ambitious reforms.
It is, after all, the fourth quarter. Who could possibly argue with that?

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Strait Talk: What Does D-17 Mean to You?

December 18, 2015

According to a survey released this week, there has been a striking increase in support among Cubans and Cuban Americans living in the United States for President Obama’s policies of engagement and reconciliation toward Cuba since he began making epic changes in the policy on December 17th, 2014.

Compared to the results Bendixen & Amandi reported a year ago, support among Cubans and Cuban Americans in the U.S. for President Obama’s decision to normalize relations with Cuba has risen from 44% to 56%.  Support for ending the embargo has spiked to 53% – a jump of nine points from a year ago.

When opinion shifts so significantly in a community that is the epicenter of pro-embargo sentiment – a community that is hardwired politically to Washington, and hardwired emotionally to family members in Cuba – we have to consider what the consequences and causes of that shift could be.

As Congress is leaving town, it is also leaving President Obama’s Cuba policy intact.  How unexpected is that?

The biggest threat to the President’s reforms resided in the ability of his opponents to use the Congressional power of the purse to reverse every one of the key actions the President took to expand travel, trade, and diplomacy itself.

After the Cold Warrior embargo supporters larded up the appropriations for four Cabinet agencies with legislation to reverse the new policies implemented by the President, the new budget agreement adopted by Congress to fund the government through September 30, 2016 dropped every provision.

As support among Cuban Americans for the president’s policy has gone up, the fear factor – by which we mean the old style, scorching hot opinion emanating from Miami and New Jersey which exerted relentless pressure on policymakers to keep the old policies in place – has subsided substantially.

No other community in the United States spends as much time in Cuba as do those with families living on the island.  What they hear – what they feel – when they visit is reflected in the polling and what we heard when we asked some friends in Cuba this week what December 17th meant to them.

Emilia Fernandez, a specialist in health and IT, and a state employee, sent us her thoughts with one precondition – that we published her name because, she said, “I’m not the kind who [likes] to hide its identity.”

What has the December 17th meant to her? “Nobody can deny the direct relationship between December 17th and the visit of famous artists to our country.  I can clearly see the joy of the people now that they [have] had the opportunity to see and enjoy their work live.  I’m very happy for that.

“But, I am very upset with the offensive behavior of some U.S. tourists, who are not showing respect for us, trying to demonstrate they are better than us, because of the money they spend loving our culture.”

Marta Núñez-Sarmiento, a sociologist at the University of Havana, took a similar tack to Emilia, but focused her reservations on the U.S. government.  She wrote, in part:

“December 17, 2014 became the first moment in our common history when the United States and Cuba decided to established diplomatic relations based on equal and mutually respectful terms. This is the opportunity for both countries to acquire new perspectives by learning from both nations, and to practice restraint from imposing preconceived judgments and values on the other…It is not a ‘quid pro quo’ discussion but one in which the U.S. must acknowledge that it has to lift more restrictions than on the Cuba side. Let us not fail in this course of action for we have much to win.”

Yamina Vicente, an economist who left academia to open up a decorations and party hosting business at an early moment in Cuba’s economic transformation, spoke with the greatest optimism about D-17:

“The resumption of relations between our countries awakens many dreams in Cuba. Within our sector, the ‘cuentapropistas’…receive benefits [from the diplomatic opening in] a direct form. Those companies that have foreign tourists as clients have doubled their sales…The imagination, the creativity has surfaced. Although, these have been short-term effects, the new relations also awaken long-term projects; business that could expand to both lands; imports, exports, and collaboration with others. It’s one word: HOPE.”

Not everyone shares her hopeful view.  When a reporter for IPS asked a middle-aged man shopping at a farmer’s market about D-17, he said, “You shouldn’t ask me, because in my view, nothing has changed.”

Maybe.  But, we close thinking about a man named Augusto Maxwell who was recently visiting Havana, according to CNN, when his daughter reached him on his cellphone.

“For most people, it would be an ordinary call — she was just checking in on him. But Maxwell’s daughter was in Miami and he was in Cuba — an island with no access to U.S. cell service just a year ago. Maxwell realized right away the call epitomized how much Cuba has changed in just a year. Then he cried.”

Tears of joy celebrating December 17th.

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