Senior Moments: 4 Key Reasons to Think About Cardinal Ortega’s Retirement

April 29, 2016

A week after former President Fidel Castro gave his valedictory speech, signaling the end of an era in Cuba’s political life, the Vatican announced that Pope Francis accepted Cardinal Jaime Ortega’s resignation as Archbishop of Havana, a milestone in the life of Cuba’s Catholic Church.

He will be succeeded by Juan de la Caridad García Rodríguez, the archbishop of the city of Camagüey, as the new archbishop of Cuba’s capital.

For us, the retirement of the Cuban Catholic Church leader who, as Reuters put it, “became an influential figure where he was once despised and played a key role in the détente with the United States,” deserves a moment of reflectionfor these four key reasons.

He was the real deal

Cardinal Ortega, born in a sugar mill town in Matanzas Province, was ordained a priest in 1964, a moment that Cuba scholar Meg Crahan remembered as a challenging time for Cuba’s Catholics, when religious figures joined the exodus of other Cubans off the island and official discrimination was visited upon individuals “who made religion a way of life.”

Ortega, as the Washington Post wrote “was sent to a reeducation camp and forced to do manual labor, as the church struggled in a state that had declared itself officially atheist.” He was there for eight months.

After serving as a parish priest, he became bishop of Pinar del Río in 1978, and was appointed Archbishop of Havana in 1981. His rise in leadership coincided with gradual changes in the government’s attitude toward the Church which he, in turn, helped leverage to create greater space for its religious and social missions.

During the Special Period, a time of privation on the island after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Church used this larger space, as Meg Crahan wrote, to confront its failure to identify strongly enough with the struggle for social justice, before and after the Cuban Revolution.

As Ortega helped bring the Church in from the cold, it came to have the greatest influence and reach since 1959, as the New York Times put it, receiving permission to build more churches and conduct public festivals, and becoming a space for dialogue about Cuba’s politics and future. Its growing role now includes, as the Miami Herald said, “helping people with all aspects of life, from providing soup kitchens and disaster relief to business training.”

He made significant contributions to human rights in Cuba and reconciliation with the U.S.

Cardinal Ortega turned a dialogue with President Raúl Castro on the harassment of the Ladies in White, a group of wives and mothers formed to support family members serving long prison terms, into a process that led to the release of dozens of political prisoners including all the remaining dissidents imprisoned following a 2003 crackdown known as the Black Spring.

He also played a vital supporting role in the behind-the-scenes drama that led to the reestablishment of ties between Cuba and the United States.  In 2014, as Peter Kornbluh and William LeoGrande recount in their book Back Channel to Cuba, Cardinal Ortega hand-delivered letters from Pope Francis to Cuba’s President Raúl Castro and, in a secret visit to Washington, D.C., to President Obama offering his pastoral support for the diplomatic process.

Philip Peters, head of the Cuba Research Center, told Reuters, “It’s fair to say that the church’s role was pivotal, and Cardinal Ortega was at the center of it… He interceded quietly with both presidents, with Pope Francis, with U.S. senators, and others, to press both governments to re-establish relations.” As Carlos Saladrigas, of the Cuba Study Group, told the New York Times, “Ortega will go into the Cuban history books as a key player… He has pushed the boundaries very far.”

His courage made him a target of character assassins in the U.S.

After the Cardinal succeeded in getting political prisoners released in Cuba – a major goal of U.S. policy – domestic opponents of improved bilateral relations attacked Cardinal Ortega for engaging in negotiations rather than confrontation with Cuba’s government.

As the Washington Post reported, the Cardinal was called “a bootlicker” by a Florida-based columnist. Even the head of Radio and TV Martí, Carlos García-Pérez, published an article on his U.S. government financed website, in which he wrote”This lackey attitude demonstrates a profound lack of understanding and compassion toward the human reality of these children of God.”

Yet, as Harvard Professor Jorge Domínguez observed at the time, “Who freed the political prisoners in Cuba? Not the European Union. Not the U.S. government. And not Radio and TV Martí. It was Ortega who convinced Raúl Castro to let them out.”

Even this week, Babalú Blog ran a crude cartoon labeling him “a Castro snitch with or without his priestly vestment,” proving no good deed goes unpunished even five years later.

His successor has big slippers to fill

His successor, Archbishop García, has been Archbishop of Camagüey since 2002. Since serving as a priest, he “has worked quietly to help rebuild the Cuban church, physically and spiritually,” and “has been described as a bishop in the style of Pope Francis,” according to the National Catholic Reporter.

His reputation as a man with a common touch was referenced in a statement by the Standing Committee of the Cuban Conference of Catholic Bishops which read, in part, “As Pope Francis characterized him, one can say that the man named Archbishop of Havana is a shepherd who ‘has the smell of his sheep.'”

Archbishop García has praised Cardinal Ortega’s legacy, and says “we will try to continue his work,” though it is not yet clear whether he will he will carry forward Cardinal Ortega’s diplomatic work.

At age 67, he enters the arena at an exceptional and historic moment. As Carlos Saladrigas commented to the New York Times this week, “Clearly everyone hopes that he will continue to push things along.” Read the rest of this entry »

On Stage at the Gran Teatro and the Party Congress

April 22, 2016

Last weekend, on the eve of a visit by the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, we sat in a performance hall named for Cuba’s eternal Alicia Alonso, with hundreds of Cubans, their hands filled with programs and smartphones, and waited for the curtain to rise for a premier performance by the dance company led by Carlos Acosta.

Here, in a cathedral that honors the Cuban ballerina and choreographer – who danced with George Balanchine in New York, who fled the Batista dictatorship to dance Giselle in Russia; who returned home with support from her revolutionary government to transform her ballet company into the National Ballet of Cuba – we applauded Acosta’s return from abroad.

Born in Havana, Acosta danced at the National Ballet School of Cuba under Alicia Alonso and, after leaving Cuba, landed roles as a guest principal artist with leading ballet companies around the world. On the heels of his classical training, he brought to the Gran Teatro’s stage in Havana a program that was exciting, breathtaking, and new.

The choreography, music, art and athleticism of the dancers – even as they swept past the classical conventions of what marked the highly accomplished Cuban ballet – ennobled the stage and Ms. Alonso herself. In this time – as in her time – the program was an immense expression of what Cubans have accomplished when they aspire to do great things.

As we sat alongside Cubans in this majestic setting, Acosta’s dancers, heirs to a fortune created before their birth, by sharing their portion of the nation’s patrimony with visitors from the United States, showed the cohesive power of culture to bring people together.

Culture has enormous power. It cannot replace diplomacy, but collaboration in the arts and humanities, between the U.S. and Cuba, can play an important role in moving it forward.

As we saw the dancers perform “I regret nothing” to the music of Edith Piaf, and “The End of Time,” with music by Rachmaninoff, we thought of a party gathering elsewhere in Havana, and were reminded that even the highest aspirations can be tripped up by the awkward dance of politics.

You could read the headlines crowning the coverage of the 7th Congress of the Cuban Communist Party by the international press that way. “Cuba’s aging leaders to remain in power years longer,” one said. “Cuba pops the bubble of high expectations,” read another.

These and other reports documented the disappointment voiced by Cubans on the record that the congress produced no dramatic economic reforms or senior leadership retirements. “Older people should retire,” a printing company worker said. Some commentators in the U.S., of course, decided this was evidence that President Obama’s reforms had again failed to change Cuba.

But, other analysis revealed the deeper nuance of the dance.

As Fulton Armstrong notes, President Castro walked a tightrope all weekend “between pressing harder for change and reassuring party conservatives that the basic tenets of the revolution will not be touched.” For example, President Castro –

  • Confirmed that the merger of Cuba’s two currencies remains a priority of the country’s economic policy despite its threat of inflation and disruption to the country’s supports.
  • Affirmed that foreign investment would play an increasing role in Cuba’s economy because, in Castro’s words, it promotes “exchanges of technology and management systems about which the country knows practically nothing.”
  • Asserted the Cuban state would continue to shed activities “not decisive to the development of the nation.”
  • Praised the role of Cuba’s growing private and cooperative sector and called “the immense majority of the entrepreneurs…revolutionary and patriotic.”
  • Conceded, as he did during the 2011 Congress, that the fight against racism that impedes the rise of Afro-Cubans to leadership must continue, and criticized the failure to promote more women to decision-making positions for slowing Cuba’s potential.
  • And blamed the bureaucracy for inertia and not encouraging “initiative and entrepreneurship.”

At the same time, President Raúl Castro used the occasion to restate his rejection of capitalism and multi-party democracy, and to warn against diplomatic overtures from the U.S., whose real goal is regime change.

It is true that a gathering of the faithful, where former President Fidel Castro told Party members he would soon turn 90 and he would be “joining the rest,” making this likely one of the last times he’d give an address before the Party, nobody moved to turn his legacy upside down.

For those of us in the U.S. who support the normalization process, it would be better, as Fulton Armstrong observed this morning, if Cuba did more through “regulatory measures encouraging business deals (with U.S. firms) that will give momentum to embargo-lifting initiatives in the U.S. Congress.”

And, as Peter Kornbluh, coauthor of Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana, told National Public Radio, “Cuba has no choice – and Raúl Castro’s leadership has been focused on this – but to attempt to modernize and evolve economically.”

Finding solutions to Cuba’s deepest problems without alarming its most determined hardliners will require choreography on the part of President Castro, of a kind that would make Carlos Acosta proud. Now that the Party Congress has cleared the stage, President Castro will have to reconnect with the larger Cuban audience that is waiting for and wanting more.

Read the rest of this entry »

The new, more balanced debate on U.S. policy

April 15, 2016

Five years ago, after President Obama restored people-to-people travel and made regulatory changes to permit virtually any airport in the U.S. to serve the Cuban market, Senators Marco Rubio (FL) and Bob Menéndez (NJ) decided to pounce.

They wrote an amendment to ground the new flights which they planned to attach to a funding bill for the Federal Aviation Administration. Had it become law, delegations filled with legally qualified educational, religious, cultural, and humanitarian delegations would have had no way to fly to the island.

Rather than having the Senators ground the flights, the Senate grounded the Senators’ amendment. It never came up for a vote. This was a surprising, seemingly solitary defeat, for the two politically powerful Cuban American legislators.

Fast-forward five years to this very week, to the United States Senate, to Senator Rubio and, yes, to the Federal Aviation Administration’s reauthorization bill. On Wednesday, he took to the Senate floor to speak on behalf of another amendment that he planned to tack on to the FAA bill to stop Cuban refugees from gaining eligibility for welfare benefits the moment they set foot on U.S. soil.

This amendment didn’t fly either. On Thursday, as the Miami Herald reported, the Republican-controlled Senate refused even to hold a vote on the Rubio proposal. Exasperated but without an apparent trace of irony, Rubio responded by saying, “This is why people are so sick of politics.”

Far from being politics as usual, Rubio’s defeat at the hands of a Senate disinterested in voting on his amendment is emblematic of a sea-change as the country reassesses our policy toward Cuba.

For decades, Cold War warriors and the Cuban-American community possessed outsized power to determine the direction of U.S.-Cuba relations. That is why, long after its strategic sell-by date, the U.S. embargo continues to impose significant restrictions on the right of Americans to visit Cuba and the ability of U.S. corporations to do business in Cuba.

The perception of the Cuban-American lock on Florida’s electoral votes outlived the reality of it, as President Obama’s victories in the 2008 and 2012 general elections demonstrated. Slowly – like during the Senate’s 2011 debate on the FAA bill – and then suddenly, since President Obama’s decisive changes in U.S. policy were announced in December 2014, perception and reality have started to merge.

It’s a different time when Cuban American legislators in both houses of the U.S. Congress, from both political parties, admit to feeling left out of the conversation on Cuba: see, for example, “Once mighty, Miami’s political guard left out of conversation on Cuba,” Miami Herald, April 8th, 2016.

Meanwhile, Cuban American moderates who were subjected to violence, marginalization, intimidation, even loss of employment opportunities by hardliners, but not silenced by them, can’t help but celebrate the agency and voice they enjoy in this more balanced time.

“I’m happy,” one such moderate, Max Castro, wrote this week, “Happy because they can no longer veto change. Happy because they can no longer dictate a policy based on allowing the Cuban people to go blind in order to poke out the eye of Fidel or Raúl.”

The big changes in Miami are not taking place in isolation. The Des Moines Register editorialized this week in favor of lifting the embargo. It cited a news report that with so many U.S. tourists visiting the island, Cuba risked running out of beer. It went on to say, “Cuba seems forever changed, despite Congressional resistance in lifting the 55-year-old trade embargo. Our representatives should remove the barriers, because the benefits would change Iowa, too.”

It’s a different time when a big newspaper concedes that Cuba not only has cigars (and beer, if it doesn’t run out), but also medical breakthroughs like the treatment Cuba developed to cut down on the incidence of amputations resulting from diabetic foot ulcers.

It’s a different time when a cross-section of Americans voters – Democrats, Independents, and Republicans – support diplomatic relations and ending the trade embargo, as the CBS-New York Times poll reported last month.

It’s a different time when the President’s Committee for the Arts and Humanities – including cultural figures like Usher, Joshua Bell, Alfre Woodard, Dave Matthews, and Smokey Robinson, as well as the leadership of the Smithsonian, the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities – can announce a cultural mission to Cuba (with an itinerary planned with the help of CDA), to advance the normalization process, without worrying that a chorus of boo-birds and fanatics will shower them with press releases or threats of Congressional hearings.

It’s a different time when it’s okay for the administration to criticize Cuba vigorously for a policy that allows Cuban Americans to visit the island by air, but not by sea, and to call out the Carnival Cruise lines for not selling them tickets – while also containing the controversy to keep diplomacy on track.

The point here is that times have changed. What we celebrate is a new normal where everyone gets his or her say, no one is dispossessed, and values core to U.S. foreign policy like human rights are still represented – without all of us being trapped in Cold War time warp or a rigged debate over U.S.-Cuba relations in which only the minority wins.

Acknowledging this change in the distribution of political power is essential as we reinvigorate the debate on ending the embargo. Here, the majority finally rules.

Read the rest of this entry »

Start the embargo debate now

April 8, 2016

The proclamation signed by President Kennedy in 1962 instituting the U.S. embargo against Cuba had a muscular beginning.

Vesting enormous powers in the hands of the President, it declared that the United States was prepared “to take all necessary actions to promote national hemispheric security by isolating the present Government of Cuba and thereby reducing the threat posed by its alignment with the communist powers.”

The blockade, as William LeoGrande recently reminded us, became the most comprehensive regime of economic sanctions against any country in the world.  Over the years, Kennedy’s embargo – a harsh but manipulable tool of U.S. foreign policy – became, in the words of Fidel Castro, “a tangled ball of yarn.”

Cuba sanctions in the hands of Congress – like a hammer in the hands of a child who discovers that everything is a nail – appeared seemingly everywhere; from travel to trade to foreign aid, to food security, trying to stop anything and everything that could put hard currency in Cuba’s treasury.

When good strategy might have occurred to us – in the form of drawing Cuba closer when the Soviet Union withdrew and left its economy near collapse, hotter heads and Cold Warriors in Washington prevailed.  Congress codified a long list of sanctions in the Cuban Democracy and Helms-Burton acts, and tried to turn the screws tighter.

Still, Cuba’s government remains in power, unwilling to bend to Washington’s will.

It’s hardly news that the embargo failed; in a study of U.S. sanctions applied on 174 occasions from World War I to 2006, sanctions only partially accomplished their political goal a third of the time.  In Cuba, they never got to first base.

And yet, the embargo remains in place, under President Obama, after his heroic efforts to partially peel it back through the exercise of his executive authority; after his historic trip to Havana last month; after saying in his moving speech, “What the United States was doing was not working…The embargo was only hurting the Cuban people instead of helping them,” even after he reprised his call to Congress to lift the embargo.

The debate about the embargo – do we repeal it because it didn’t work, as the President believes, or as the Miami Herald likes to say, until the Cuban government earns it, is falsely framed, because it focuses only on the ends we are trying to achieve rather than the means we have used to achieve them.

The goal of our policy has been to make Cubans so hungry, so isolated from their families abroad, so unable to earn a living, so miserable, that they’d take to the streets to confront their government.  In the course of maintaining this worthless, ineffective embargo, year after year, we lost sight of the damage we were causing to the people who were the supposed beneficiaries of our policy.

It is perfectly understandable to do follow-up on the President’s trip, and think about – as we do – the steps we can all take to protect his reforms and make them irreversible.

But, let’s not delay thinking about what could be done today to prepare for ending the embargo completely; if not through action by this Congress, as CDA allies Rep. Emmer, Rep. Castor, and Sen. Klobuchar have proposed, then by the next one.

Another Congress will be seated in 2017, but there’s nothing to lose and much to gain, by reinvigorating this debate now.  We will not try and offer the answers here, but several sensible ideas come to mind.

Normalization is good for the U.S. economy, and the public needs to hear that.  The President could convene a Cuba Trade Summit at the White House enabling the U.S. companies – who’ve lined up to make deals in Cuba – to remind policymakers and the press that doing business in Cuba, for the vast majority of our companies, remains illegal, and use this forum to make a loud, persuasive case that the embargo should end.

Further reforms will also be good for Cuba’s economy and its people.  As Gary Hufbauer has proposed in his roadmap for economic normalization, the President could allow Cuban sugar into the U.S. Sugar Re-export Program and boost Cuba’s export earnings without inciting a big domestic squabble among our producers.  He could set in motion permanent normal trade relations with Cuba by issuing a finding under the Jackson-Vanik amendment recognizing that President Raúl Castro has ended travel restrictions on Cuba’s people.

If the administration wants to clear the way for Cuba to move further, faster on updating its economy, and recognize its successes to date in reducing its foreign debts, it can signal the International Financial Institutions, as Cuban economist Ricardo Torres and Richard Feinberg, a U.S. expert, suggested, that we will support as much interaction with Cuba as its leadership wishes to have.

Last, we think the President should take a swing at the sanctions regime itself.  As Gary Hufbauer says, the Helms-Burton law contains waiver authority the president can use to drop sanctions.  He should use it.  Stephen Heifetz argued the same thing, in a New York Times piece last year titled, “Sanctions Worked, Congress.  Let them die.”

There’s a case to be made against much of Helms-Burton, as we suggested in the wake of the Supreme Court’s passport case ruling relating to diplomatic recognition, that the restrictions in Helms-Burton on the president’s authority to revoke the embargo are unconstitutional.  He can challenge them.

Pew and other polling organizations have found time and again, since Mr. Obama made his sharp departure from the Cold War policies of predecessors dating back to President Kennedy that ending the Cuba embargo and modernizing the policy have broad public support.

This is the moment to leverage it.  We think these new policies are popular not only because the old ones failed, and not just because Cuba has become a different place in the American mindset so long after the Cold War.  They’re popular because they reflect the presidency as a vital center of action at a time when the system embodies the opposite.  The reforms are a much needed jolt to our system.  Ending the embargo will be even better.

Read the rest of this entry »

Reflecting back, proceeding forward

April 1, 2016

After celebrating President Obama’s historic visit to Cuba, and his complex but hopeful address that asked both countries to leave the past behind; after enjoying the sight of the historicos, the Rolling Stones, belting out “Satisfaction” from the stage of the Ciudad Deportiva, we are reminded that normalization is a work in progress; that change in the foreign policies of the United States and Cuba of the magnitude championed by Presidents Obama and Castro require both memory and modesty to get us from where we are to where we’d like to be.

Less than a year ago, when Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez spoke to the press together before the flag-raising at Cuba’s embassy in Washington, Mr. Rodriguez emphasized that “lifting of the blockade, the return of the illegally occupied territory of Guantanamo, as well as the full respect for Cuban sovereignty” was “crucial to be able to move towards the normalization of relations.”

Less than two weeks ago, when President Obama and President Raul Castro spoke to the press together, Mr. Castro emphasized that removal of the U.S. embargo will be the essential to normalize bilateral relations, and, he continued, it will also be “necessary to return the territory illegally occupied by Guantanamo Naval Base.”  He said, as well, that “Other policies (that challenge Cuba’s sovereignty) should also be abolished for normal relations to develop between the United States and Cuba.”

Against this backdrop, it should have come as no surprise that Fidel Castro, Cuba’s former President, would write in a Reflection titled “Brother Obama,” a fierce defense of Cuba’s sovereignty, and an equally fierce call not to let loose of a past that lives so actively in the Cuban mind, his and many others.

While many U.S. commentators fixated on Fidel Castro’s tone and its contrast with the forward leaning words of President Obama, it is important to place his remarks in context (Mr. Castro published his statement after the president’s visit concluded) and to remember what he said and left unsaid once the visit was over. He neither sought to scuttle President Obama’s visit beforehand, nor did he criticize the deepening economic, political, and scientific contacts between Cuba and the U.S. under the new policy of mutual engagement.

His themes in counterpoint to the U.S. president’s objectives bespoke the traditional aims and principles of Cuban foreign policy.  His reading of our shared past – one he helped define for more than five decades – was as resolute as President Obama’s recitation of, and belief in, the American canon and creed.

In short, Fidel Castro did not use his pen to derail normalization, but he did remind people on both sides of the Florida Straits that making peace with long-time enemies is an endeavor to be undertaken thoughtfully; or, as our many Cuban friends like to say “just as porcupines make love; carefully.”

The real surprise is that some in our country were surprised by what he said, or that the actions implied by President Obama’s speech would be met with reactions of equal force in Havana.

If there were greater trust, what President Obama said in his speech at Havana’s Gran Teatro, “El futuro de Cuba tiene que estar en las manos del pueblo cubano“-“the future of Cuba must be in the hands of the Cuban people,” would have been more broadly accepted.

In Cuba, the meeting of the 7th Congress of the Cuban Communist Party is swiftly approaching.  The last Congress, which met in 2011, set Cuba on a path to revise its economic model, including the contested decision to rely at times on market forces, and on small businesses, for some but not all of Cuba’s job creation going forward.  Five years later, the Party is reconvening, but it has so far left Cubans uncertain of where it is heading next.

As the Associated Press noted this week, “Days after President Barack Obama’s historic visit, the leaders of Cuba’s Communist Party are under highly unusual public criticism from their own ranks for imposing new levels of secrecy on the future of social and economic reforms.” In fact, alongside the elder Castro’s “Brother Obama” blog, was another article that addressed a behind the scenes debate that is now roiling in public that included criticisms of the Party for a lack of open discussion before the upcoming Party Congress. The unsigned article said these divisions were “a sign of the democracy and public participation that are intrinsic characteristics of the socialism that we’re constructing.”

There are vast differences in our systems and institutions, but we should relate to Cuba’s uncertainty about the way forward with this degree of modesty.  Here in the U.S., we won’t know until after the November election and the convening of the 115th Congress next January whether President Obama’s policy of engagement with Cuba will regress back to our Cold War past or be enhanced by legislative action replacing his executive reforms with substantive legislation to repeal the trade embargo or the ban on travel.

As his second term draws to a close, President Obama has made it a priority to make the normalization process irreversible. But, as we have observed in both countries, the Cold War is tough to bury. While it remains fresh in the minds of those who lived it, it is no longer the dominant narrative. Dr. Juan Triana Cordoví, an economist and writer for OnCuba, echoed this sentiment. In detailing his experience at the Rolling Stones concert surrounded by his fellow Cubans he wrote, “They haven’t, and neither have I, forgotten the past is a part of our story, but we were all there, enjoying the present and looking to the future.”

Read the rest of this entry »

“Split Screens” – Obama’s visit to Cuba and the future of U.S.-Cuba relations

March 25, 2016
On Tuesday, President Obama delivered a breathtaking speech to the Cuban people.

It was a speech only he could deliver; with powerful words spoken from his unique perspective as America’s first African-American president, and true to his devotion to a new diplomacy that reflects our ideals and the realities of the post-Cold War world.

One of those realities is terrorism. Watching his speech on television in the U.S. meant seeing it through a split screen; one eye on the podium and the audience in Cuba’s majestic Gran Teatro de la Habana and another on the horrific terror strike in the Brussels airport and subway system.

Although the president touched on the tragedy at the start of his remarks, those of us who watched the speech on television seated with Cubans in Havana, had a unique split-screen experience of our own.

We heard President Obama, who came to office talking to one audience, the Cuban American diaspora, and speaking one word of Spanish, “libertad,” code for regime change, now using the rich vocabulary of engagement to articulate “one overarching goal” for our relations with Cuba: “advancing the mutual interests of our two countries, including improving the lives of our people, both Cubans and Americans.

His address, adorned with references to Jose Marti, sounded big themes: respect for Cubans and aspects of their revolutionary project; reconciliation of the Cuban family; race and the evolution of America’s democracy; the promise of generational change and prospects for a brighter future.

As he spelt out the terms of a new bilateral relationship, we heard him addressing audiences in both countries: historicos in Havana and hardliners in Washington; the business class in America and entrepreneurs in Cuba; Cubans and Cuban Americans, old and young; the Cubans who want to realize the goals of their revolution through 21stcentury means, and Americans who want to support their neighbors as they plan a future in this new special period of peace.

Make no mistake: this was a respectful and challenging speech about what the U.S. reconciliation could mean to Cuba’s people, delivered in ways that surely inspired some and discomforted others. The president also explained to the people of our country why he is working to normalize relations with Cuba and why doing so serves our interests in this new time.

That said, reasonable men and women of good will in the U.S. – not just opponents of the President or his policy – criticized his reaction to Brussels as the day unfolded.  He should have cut his visit short, they said, or devoted more time in his speech to the tragedy; he should have skipped the baseball game against Cuba’s National Team, not spoken to ESPN, or not done the wave (here, they might have a point).

But, had he left his work in Cuba unfinished, it is likely that much of what made this trip so powerful – the speech, the joint press conference with President Castro in which both men took questions (to the astonishment of many Cubans), along with that really awkward hand-jive moment at the end (which astonished us all) would have been blunted.

For the president to leave Cuba in the wake of the attacks would have been a throwback to what had already delayed this moment for decades; the idea that the U.S.-Cuba relationship was either too unimportant or so immutable in its existing form, it did not merit reconsideration or the President’s full attention.  Instead, he persisted and remained as connected to his task, and to the people of Cuba, as they were to him.

In this edition of the Cuba Central News Brief, we provide a concise and curated selection of reports we recommend reading that account for each stage of his journey to Cuba, as well as a more expansive treatment of a remarkable speech that is likely to be influential for a long time to come.

“I plant a white rose.”

As the New York Times noted, the President at the outset of his speech, communicated his respect for the talents and ingenuity of Cubans, the service offered by Cuban doctors in places like  West Africa, to alleviate suffering and care for the poor, and the role of Cuba’s government in facilitating the peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC.  His words  to the Cuban people, suffused with the spirit of Jose Martí, began by quoting the poet, “Cultivo una rosa blanca,” I plant a white rose.

Offering more than just grace notes, the president gave his sharpest and clearest statements to date that he intended to bury the Cold War, and with words that should echo in the Council of State and the U.S. Congress, it was time to “leave behind the ideological battles of the past.”  Like many in Cuba and the United States, he affirmed, “I know the history, but I refuse to be trapped by it.”

Obama’s American Creed

With expressions both challenging and reconciling, the President acknowledged that “part of Cuba’s identity is its pride in being a small island nation that could stand up for its rights and shake the world.”  Noting the new era of reduced bilateral tensions, and invoking Dr. Martin Luther King’s in “the fierce urgency of now,” President Obama said it was time to set aside the fear of change and embrace it.

By renouncing the intention of U.S. policy to impose change on Cuba, “having removed,” as he said, “the shadow of history from our relationship,” the president could then give voice to ideas core to the American canon and creed.  He said things that his predecessors had only said – or dreamt of saying – from the comfort of Washington.  But, he could say them in Cuba, to Cuba’s leadership, and to Cubans watching him on national television, because he had summoned the courage to make the trip.

“I believe that every person should be equal under the law. Every child deserves the dignity that comes with education, and health care and food on the table and a roof over their heads. I believe citizens should be free to speak their mind without fear to organize, and to criticize their government, and to protest peacefully, and that the rule of law should not include arbitrary detentions of people who exercise those rights.  I believe that every person should have the freedom to practice their faith peacefully and publicly. And, yes, I believe voters should be able to choose their governments in free and democratic elections.”

The transcript shows the president was interrupted throughout this passage by applause, but accounts from the scene indicated that not everyone in attendance clapped.


The Washington Post reported the speech “was like nothing the people of Cuba have heard in many years.” In it, the president “issued an emotional appeal for an end to decades of ‘painful and sometimes violent separation’ between those who left for new lives in the United States – who were long officially reviled [in Cuba] as traitors – and those who remained behind.”

The split screen projected its magic in Miami. “Mr. Obama’s emotional reference to émigré Cubans drew tears from many watchers,” the Financial Times reported, as they stared at their televisions in South Florida.

Here, too, the special genius of the speech was in evidence, as the president associated his person and his background with the lives of the lighter skin Cubans who comprise nearly all of the diaspora. “They also know what it’s like to be an outsider, and to struggle, and to work harder to make sure their children can reach higher in America.”

This speech will be remembered for the momentum the President chose to put behind the reconciliation of the Cuban family.

Racial Justice as a Metaphor for Democracy

When President Lyndon Johnson addressed the U.S. Congress in 1965 to urge passage of the Voting Rights Act, he pointed to the faith expressed by black Americans who were using the mechanisms of democracy to win back rights they had been deprived of by those same mechanisms. Forty years later, Barack Obama, the truest beneficiary of Johnson’s legacy, again invoked his life story, as a message to Cuba’s considerable Afro-Cuban population, and as a metaphor for the therapeutic effects of democracy, even as he conceded our country’s continuing challenges with racial bias.

President Obama noted that in 1959,

“The year that my father moved to America, it was illegal for him to marry my mother, who was white, in many American states. When I first started school, we were still struggling to desegregate schools across the American South.  But people organized; they protested; they debated these issues; they challenged government officials. And because of those protests, and because of those debates, and because of popular mobilization, I’m able to stand here today as an African-American and as President of the United States. That was because of the freedoms that were afforded in the United States that we were able to bring about change.”

As he reminded his audience of his first meeting with President Raul Castro, at the memorial for Nelson Mandela, he said “We want our engagement to help lift up the Cubans who are of African descent, who’ve proven that there’s nothing they cannot achieve when given the chance.” This message sparked the Los Angeles Times to ask, What Obama’s visit means for Cuba’s national conversation about race.

The Role of Young Cubans in Building their Country’s Future

If the President’s opening to Cuba is allowed to flourish – by decisions made in Washington and Havana now and after he and Raul Castro leave office – there should be a peace dividend deposited into the pockets of Cuba’s next generation. Without it, the President warned, Cuba’s youth will lose hope.  To our ears, what could have sounded like a tough love message – opponents of reform in Cuba who are concerned that U.S. policy really hasn’t changed – was delivered with a white rose attached.

In his remarks, he held up the example of Sandra Lidice Aldama, who chose to start a small business. “Cubans, she said, can ‘innovate and adapt without losing our identity…our secret is not copying or imitating but simply being ourselves.”

In this new era, the President seemed to say approvingly, Cuba would still be Cuba, that it’s revolutionary values would live on, if that’s what its young people decided.

Three days after the President left town, his State Department unveiled a $750,000 grant program targeting Cuban youth, and invited the kind of social service organizations our government has used in the past that destroyed trust in our motives, to lift up Cuban youth.  With that, a petal fell from the white rose and hit the floor with a resounding thud.

What Happens Next?

As we published tonight, the President has returned home, and the Rolling Stones were getting ready to hit the stage in Havana. Now, the task begins of testing whether the President’s trip and his carefully chosen words give greater force to his reforms and make them more resilient, less prone to reversal, in the months and years ahead.

The visit was clearly a bonanza for U.S. businesses – like General Electric, Western Union, the Carnival Cruise Line, and Starwood Hotels – who got to join the President’s entourage and announce deals his policy allowed them to make.  Even as the hardline opponents of the president’s policies called these contracts sell-outs of the Cuban opposition, Cuban dissident, José Daniel Ferrer called the president’s speech, “a light in the dark.”

But, perhaps the most realistic assessment was offered by Elaine Diaz, whose words, ring authentic and true, whether your split screen shines in Cuba or the United States:

“Tomorrow,” she wrote, “Cuba will still be Cuba. And Cubans will leave their television screens and start worrying again about daily issues: food, salaries, housing, public transportation. But it will be, hopefully, a better Cuba. Not because we received an American president on our soil, which is great, but because the signs we pay attention to will no longer be expressed in binaries: capitalism or socialism, good or bad, rain as resistance or as purification. Our world will be a more nuanced one.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Week In Review: Obama in Cuba in America’s season of cynicism

March 18, 2016
A year before his historic election, then-Senator Barack Obama told a crowd in Miami’s Little Havana, “We’ve been engaged in a failed policy with Cuba for the last 50 years. And we need to change it.”

Senator Obama, as Bill LeoGrande recounts, joined this new vision of Cuba policy with substantive proposals to restore Cuban-American family travel, remittances, and people-to-people contacts, and to resume engagement with Cuba’s government on issues that affected our common interests.

As a political candidate, Mr. Obama’s positions were a bet against the conventional wisdom that no one could be elected president without offering full-throated support for the embargo; as a leader for the nation’s foreign policy, he would stage a sharp departure from fifty years of foreign policy orthodoxy.

Converting these risky bets into round trip tickets to Cuba on Air Force One took courage and remarkable insight into what made this time the right time for a policy change of this magnitude.

So, how did the President pull this off?

First, he changed U.S. sanctions; not all at once, but by taking manageable bites, acting without much fanfare, taking mostly safe steps first. In 2009, he began by removing the Bush-era limits on the right of Cuban Americans to visit Cuba and provide financial support for their families.

In the beginning, it seemed counterintuitive to make the community most responsible for keeping the failed Cuba policy in place the most immediate beneficiaries of that policy’s liberalization. But, as visits by Cuban Americans to the island increased 8-fold under the new policy, giving the diaspora “skin in the game” also gave the President political license for more encompassing reforms. Two years later, he reopened non-tourist travel for all Americans, visits which have also grown exponentially, further increasing political support for additional reforms.

Second, he has managed Congress brilliantly. After repeatedly using his executive authority to create legal exceptions to the embargo – allowing increases in travel, trade, and commercial contacts with Cuba in 2009, 2011, 2015, and 2016 – not a single reform has been reversed, defunded, or delayed by legislative actions, or by court decisions, as in the case of immigration.

Third, he never caved under controversy. During the slow, steady seven years of President Obama’s purposeful evolution of U.S. policy, there have been troubling and unwelcomed developments – the long prison term of USAID subcontractor Alan Gross prominent among them – of the kind that caused earlier presidents to drop Cuba from their reform agendas. Hardline Members of the U.S. Congress – Republicans and Democrats – even told the administration not to negotiate for Alan Gross’s release, because doing so would require the U.S. to make concessions.

Today, Alan Gross walks free because the President ignored their advice and protected his policy goals while finding a formula that got Mr. Gross, an imprisoned CIA agent, dozens of Cuban political prisoners, and the remaining members of the Cuban Five, back to their homes. Settling their cases was only part of the negotiation that led to the announcement on December 17, 2014 that diplomatic relations would be restored.

Fourth, while the president kept his eyes on the big picture, he also kept learning. In his first term, we were often assured by a member of his National Security Council staff that Cuba was not such a big deal to the other nations of Latin America.

In 2012, our strongest allies in the region, including from conservative governments like Colombia, told the President they would boycott the next Summit of the Americas unless Cuba could attend. In 2015, just four months after Presidents Obama and Castro spoke to their publics about the coming rapprochement, they could meet in person at the Summit in Panama to discuss how the new relationship was going after the U.S. dropped its objections and Cuba got its seat at the table. By the time he delivered his 2016 State of the Union Address, President Obama was challenging Congress to lift the embargo “if you want to consolidate our leadership and credibility in the hemisphere.”

Fifth, by tackling this problem as he did, the President created a virtuous cycle in public opinion as measured nationally and in the Cuban American community.

According to the Gallup poll, when he took office in 2009, Cuba was viewed unfavorably by 60% of Americans against just 29% who held favorable views. After seven years of reforms, increased travel, diplomacy, and visible presidential leadership, Cuba is now viewed favorably by 54% of Americans, with unfavorable views falling from 60% down to 40%.

Of perhaps greater significance, support within the diaspora for normalization, according to recent research published by Bendixen & Amandi, leapt from 44% in December 2014 to 56% in just one year. Last year’s Sunshine State Survey found that Floridians of all stripes support diplomatic relations with Cuba at exactly the same levels.

By spreading out the reforms over 7 years, while handling Congress and controversy so steadily, learning and making adjustments along the way, the President won public consent for Cuba policy reforms and a trip to Havana that few of us could have expected.

“Many Americans,” the political scientist Jonathan Bernstein wrote in 2012, “would be skeptical of the idea that elected officials, presidents included, try to keep the promises they made on the campaign trail.” In this season of cynicism, that skepticism is off the charts.

Perhaps this is what is most remarkable about the trip that President Obama is about to begin: In 2007, he made bold promises to reform Cuba policy as a candidate for our nation’s highest office, and then did the unexpected. He kept his word.

Anyone watching him step off of Air Force One on Sunday should remember that.

Our Recommendations

U.S. – Cuba Relations
On Tuesday, the Obama administration announced a number of significant regulatory changes related to Cuba. The new rules will make it significantly easier and more affordable for individual U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba, increase Cuba’s access to international markets, permit Cuban entities to carry out transactions in dollars, and allow Cuban citizens to earn salaries in the United States. This latter change will clear the way for Cuban baseball players to become Major Leaguers in the U.S. without having to give up their Cuban citizenship.

In a separate action, the U.S. government also removed Cuba from its list of countries deemed to have insufficient port security, a change that will clear the way for U.S. cruise ships and cargo vessels to travel back and forth, the Associated Press reported.

For more details on the new regulations, be sure to read the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control’s (OFAC) full announcement and its list of frequently asked questions about Cuba.

Cuba Eliminates Tax on U.S. Dollar, Havana Times

Cuba responded to the new rules permitting the use of dollars by cancelling the ten percent tax that it applies on U.S. dollars entering the country, Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said.

Changes in Cuba

A broad coalition, including the Center for Democracy in the Americas (publisher of this weekly news briefing) is working for changes in U.S.-Cuba policy. Eight members of our coalition helped produce this factsheet that focuses on changes taking place in Cuba, authorized by the government and propelled by the Cuban people.

Obama letter among first direct mail to Cuba in more than 50 years, Doug Stanglin,USA Today

This week marked the first time in more than fifty years that U.S. mail could be sent directly to Cuba. The U.S. Postal Service announced on Thursday that it now provides a full range of mail service to Cuba, including first-class letters, packages, and Priority Mail International. To mark the occasion, President Barack Obama sent a letter to a seventy-six year old Cuban pen-pal in the first batch of direct mail to Cuba in more than 50 years.

Culture Gap Impedes U.S. Business Efforts for Trade With Cuba, Victoria Burnett,New York Times

Fifteen months after the Obama administration announced the normalization of relations with Cuba, and American business leaders started flocking to the island, relatively few business deals have been signed. Beyond tourism, the U.S. and Cuba continue to have largely different economic visions for the future. Philip Peters, a partner at D17 Strategies, a consultancy in Washington, said that Cuba is “not going to rewrite the rule book [for American entrepreneurs].” Still, some American businesses have prospered: Airbnb began operating in Cuba in April; Sprint now has a roaming agreement with the Cuban state telecommunications company, ETECSA; and Cleber, the Alabama tractor company that plans to build a factory in the Mariel Special Development Zone, received a license last month.

Cuba changing, but only slowly, since Obama’s policy shift, Daniel Trotta, Reuters

In the past fifteen months, the Obama administration’s effort to normalize U.S. relations with Cuba has resulted in a 77% increase in U.S. travel to the island, numerous new regulations, and the first visit of a U.S. president to Cuba in almost ninety years. Despite this, some say that Cuba’s government has not fully reciprocated. “What is perceived on the outside as slow progress is really the way of Cubans assuring themselves of the trust that is necessary to be built,” says U.S. businessman Saul Berenthal of the Cleber tractor company. Market-style reforms on the island have had limited implementation, trade imports and exports remain tightly controlled, and communications and expression remain constrained. While Cuba’s businesses have benefitted from a 50% growth rate in the past year, business leaders in Cuba, such as restaurant owner Niuris Higueras are calling for greater access to U.S. goods and markets. “Cuba has already changed, but needs more… We need to link up with the U.S. market,” Higueras said.

AT&T, Starwood, Marriott Work on Cuba Deals Ahead of Obama Trip, NBC News

At least three major U.S. companies – AT&T, Starwood, and Marriott – are seeking to make major deals with Cuba as President Barack Obama prepares to visit Havana. AT&T is negotiating a mobile communications agreement with Cuba’s state telecoms monopoly ETECSA. Earlier this week, Verizon signed a similar agreement. Meanwhile, hotel and resort chains Starwood and Marriott are confident that they can soon announce plans to develop hotels in Cuba under their respective names, according to a source who was briefed by administration and company officials.

Klobuchar, Emmer to join Obama’s historic trip to Cuba, Allison Sherry, Star Tribune

Republican Rep. Tom Emmer (MN-6) and Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar (MN) will join President Obama on his historic trip to Cuba this weekend.. Both Emmer and Klobuchar are strong advocates of ending the trade embargo. Last year, Emmer introduced the anti-embargo Cuba Trade Act of 2015 in the House, while Klobuchar has led a bipartisan effort to introduce similar legislation in the Senate.  Senator Klobuchar and Rep. Emmer made their first trips to Cuba on delegations led by the Center for Democracy in the Americas in 2015. They will be part of a large group of lawmakers visiting Cuba, including House Democrats and Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona.

How to Go to Cuba Right Now, Victoria Burnett, New York Times

The new U.S. government regulations announced on Tuesday have made it easier for U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba on “people-to-people” trips. For the first time, U.S. citizens will no longer have to book travel to Cuba as part of a group.  Although these non-tourist individual travelers will still need to use a charter airline service at the present time, they will be able to book seats on carriers operating regularly-scheduled flights between Cuba and the United States when commercial service begins later this year.

In Cuba

On Major Lazer In Havana, Isabel C. Albee, Huffington Post

Isabel Albee, formerly an intern at the Center for Democracy in the Americas, describes her experience attending last week’s Diplo and Major Lazer concert in Havana. The event was the first major open-air concert in Cuba featuring U.S.-based artists since Cuba and the U.S. announced they would normalize relations in December 2014, and attracted a crowd of over 400,000 people. “The concert didn’t change Cuba, nor was it a sign of a changing Cuba,” writes Albee. “It was a sign of life in Havana, and it made young Cubans feel like they were part of the rest of the world.”

Diagnostican primer caso de transmisión autócton del virus del Zika (First Indigenous Case of Zika Diagnosed in Cuba), Granma

Cuba’s Ministry of Public Health has confirmed the first indigenous case of Zika virus on the island. The patient, a twenty-one year old woman in Central Havana, has been hospitalized at Freyre Andrade Hospital. This case comes weeks after a Venezuelan medical student in Cuba displayed symptoms of the Zika virus.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 25 other followers