Restoring Relations and the Rashomon Effect

May 20, 2016
Earlier this week, the McClatchy News Service published an article which reported “the Castro government has carried out a campaign to diminish the importance of the historic visit.”
Of course, that piece came out just two days after the Associated Press reported “President Barack Obama’s trip to Cuba advanced the normalization of relations between the Cold War foes and created momentum for more cooperation on agriculture, medicine, and law enforcement, Cuba’s top diplomat, Josefina Vidal, on U.S. affairs said Monday.”
Today, AFP’s Havana bureau filed a story that the movie “Transformers 5” will begin filming tomorrow in Cuba’s Capital, just weeks after “Fast & Furious 8” brought its fast cars and a “pumped up Vin Diesel” to Havana and became the first American film since 1961 to shoot scenes in Cuba.
Of course, that piece came out just hours before the Associated Press reported that, “Artists, writers and intellectuals who believe deeply in Cuba’s opening to the world are questioning their government’s management of an onslaught of big-money pop culture.”
While Cubans are, as AP said, “Avid consumers of U.S. culture in pirated TV and films,” and many “love that the world is looking at us,” as Alberto O’Reilly told bureau chief Michael Weissenstein, many Cubans are not feeling the economic benefits of their country’s economic reforms or the diplomatic opening with the U.S.  And others simply don’t want to bring back the days when Americans viewed Cuba as their playground.
Earlier this year, when President Obama visited the island and spoke in national television, he told the Cuban people he wanted to “bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas.”
Of course, three days later, the U.S. State Department unveiled a program to train Cuban youth to build organizations that will actively support democratic principles in Cuba; a program modeled after Cold War era schemes to topple the island’s communist system, a rather hasty exhumation of the remnant buried by the president 72 hours earlier.
Yes, Presidents Raúl Castro and Barack Obama have gambled their respective leadership legacies on restoring diplomatic relations.  Yes, we, and others, celebrate the power of cultural cooperation to bring artists and audiences together across national and ideological boundaries.  And yes, Cubans long for more prosperous lives and deeper connections with people and ideas from across the Florida Strait.
But, these truths coexist with expressions of dread driven by the experience that our diplomacy is just a soft power expression of our resolve to change the regime in Cuba; that our thirst for contracts and consumers will trample the beauty of Cuba and the individuality of Cubans; or that Cuba’s government won’t shake its bureaucratic lethargy or its doubts about U.S. intentions and goals to make use of the Obama opening while it still exists.
In this way, the U.S.-Cuba rapprochement contains its own Rashomon effect: where people in both countries – even ones who share the same values – are driven to contradictory interpretations of the same set of events. These contradictions, by the way, have real world consequences.
They slow down diplomacy in both countries.  They mute the effectiveness of reforms in the U.S. and Cuba which would otherwise provide more commercial opportunities for U.S. businesses on the island, more jobs and higher wages for Cubans and real benefits for U.S. tourists and consumers.  They occasionally stick both governments in the “glue” of past history and angry rhetoric.
Although the author would probably not describe his own writing this way, Fulton Armstrong, Research Fellow at the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies, captures the Rashomon-like appearance of the normalization process in his recent piece titled “U.S.-Cuba Normalization: Entering a New, Challenging Phase.
While quite critical of the U.S. tendency to stick with initiatives that undermine Cuba’s confidence that Washington is serious, he points to several well-reasoned grounds for optimism starting with Cuba, where:
  • A robust debate and dialogue “within the revolution” is already taking place
  • More information is circulating among Cuban citizens, such as TV and other programming reproduced on thumb drives across the island, without the government shutting it down
  • More space exists for Cuban citizens to meet their economic needs including through employment and business creation in the private sector which, party leaders now say, contributes to the economy
  • Political change in Cuba, led by President Raúl Castro’s retirement, will likely produce greater dialogue among the country’s new leaders, and a larger role for Cuba’s parliament.

But Mr. Armstrong also expresses confidence in a constructive role that U.S. commerce, the Cuban American community, and U.S. NGO’s can play in keeping the process on track. The antidote, in essence, to relations bogged down by the Rashomon effect, is the virtuous circle created by the successes already delivered by the policy.

“Successes in people-to-people relations, business dealings, and other interactions appear the most likely path to building trust, maximizing mutual benefit, driving regulatory and legislative change, and propelling the relationship into the future.”

In the end, he says, “The people of both countries are ready for more normal relations.”

An indefensible amendment

May 13, 2016

Three years ago, Rep. Kathy Castor helped solve a missing children’s case.

Following her first visit to Cuba, Cole and Chase Hakken, two boys in her Tampa District, ages 4 and 2, were kidnapped and taken by boat to the island.But, Rep. Castor used contacts she made on her trip to link the Hillsborough County Sherriff’s Department, Cuban officials, and U.S. diplomats. Their ability to talk and work together meant the boys could be speedily returned to their grandparents entrusted with their care. In the end, the right of Elián González’s father to bring his son home to Cuba was vindicated in much the same way, although it took considerably longer.

A family crisis, a migration crisis, a missile crisis – crises that have roiled the waters between Florida and Cuba; none could have been resolved had the U.S., Cuba, and the former Soviet Union not been willing or able to engage.

In fact, the installation of a hotline between Washington and Moscow on August 30, 1963, less than a year after a crisis that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war, was a signal achievement of John F. Kennedy’s presidency. The following year, a national election in the U.S. buried beneath a pile of hand-picked daisy petals any notion that we’d disconnect that hotline.

But, just as our risk to crisis never wanes, the self-defeating devotion to disconnection never dies.

Despite the presence of ongoing risks – posed by narcotics trafficking in the Caribbean, a surge in illegal migration from Cuba that continues without abate, the prospect for more off-shore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, and more – legislation is now pending in Congress to sever  “any bilateral military-to-military” contacts between the U.S. and Cuba.

See for yourself here: The language crafted by Rep. Ron DeSantis (FL-6) as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act contains no exceptions. One safety valve – just one – is provided by the amendment. No matter the gravity of a potential crisis, contacts can only resume if the government of Cuba were to meet every condition imposed on it by the Helms-Burton Act of 1996.

Can you imagine? If the amendment were to pass, and a blowout oil spill the size of the Deepwater Horizon were to take place, the amendment says that no U.S. military commander, no Pentagon official, could pick up a phone and contact a Cuban counterpart to ask, “what’s going on?” Or “how can we help?” They could only place a call to see if Cuba had become a fully functioning democracy – something U.S. sanctions have never produced after a half-century of exertion – and most unlikely to occur in the middle of a crisis.

It’s actually even worse than that. As many of our allies have said in the days since the amendment became public, this amendment would reverse or halt cooperation that is already taking place – or is soon yet to be.

A few examples:

  • For years, the U.S. forces at Guantánamo and their Cuban counterparts have held monthly, face-to-face, across the fence discussions, ensuring clear communication and avoiding the risk of a misunderstanding spinning out of control. We talked about this in our “9 Ways” report in 2009.
  • Last week, we discussed the visit in South Florida that brought together the U.S. military and a Cuban team on the topic of drug interdiction.
  • Below, we report on a pact to provide for a joint U.S.-Cuba response to a massive oil spill.

None of this could take place if the Congress were to yield to the temptation of disconnection.

The amendment, quite frankly, is a danger unto itself. But it also connects to a larger purpose, to themes dating back to a prior time – to “ideas” of Cuba as a security risk, to Cubans as “the other,” and of the U.S. as the arbiter of Cuba’s future – along with the misbegotten notion that you don’t talk to your adversaries, no matter what.

These are the foundational elements of the Helms-Burton law. Twenty years ago, it codified the sanctions the U.S. imposed on Cuba, penalties that were never meant to come off, until Cuba cried uncle.

By preventing U.S.-Cuba military-to-military collaboration, even during moments that threaten U.S. national security, the wording of the amendment calls our attention to Helms-Burton, and how it harms our national interest, in ways the author probably did not intend.

The House of Representatives considers the National Defense Authorization Act of 2017 – and the DeSantis amendment – next week. Read the rest of this entry »

Trump, the Diaspora, and the Embargo

May 6, 2016

Barring a late entry by a third-party candidate-dissenter, voters in the U.S. presidential election this fall will choose between Republican and Democratic Party nominees who agree on at least one issue: Both will favor ending the U.S. embargo of Cuba unconditionally.

As the Voice of America reported (along with several other news agencies), Mr. Donald J. Trump is now running unopposed as the presumptive Republican Party nominee for president. If you visit the Council on Foreign Relations’ Campaign 2016 website, you will see that he endorsed President Obama’s opening to Cuba last September, adding (of course), “we should have made a better deal.”

Both Democrats running for president, Secretary Clinton and Senator Sanders, also support repeal of the embargo. Whatever else the two major party candidates bicker about this fall, they won’t be arguing over Cuba.

We’ve not had a presidential election like this since the Cuban revolution. But, this development is not just historic; it augurs well for the ability of the next president to untie the knots that have bound the embargo to U.S. foreign policy far too long.

The most recent polling data out of Florida – conducted in April by Dario Moreno, associate professor at the School of International and Public Affairs at Florida International University – offers powerful evidence of how much public opinion in South Florida’s Cuban American community has shifted.

It may also explain why Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the most senior representative in Florida’s Congressional delegation, and a leading hardline supporter of tough sanctions on Cuba, announced today that she won’t be voting for either party’s nominee.

Here’s a summary of what Dr. Moreno found:

  • Cuban Americans are in the process of a secular realignment, moving away from the GOP and towards the Democrats.
  • This realignment will likely be accelerated by the nomination of Donald Trump as the Republican candidate for president.
    • Among the Cuban American base, Trump has only 37%, and “this is the lowest in history that any potential Republican candidate has polled in this traditionally loyal demographic.”
    • By comparison, Hillary Clinton is within striking range at 31%
  • Support for the hardline policy toward Cuba no longer unifies the community as it did for a generation (1980-2008), and adds “The hardline Cuban consensus is beginning to break down.”

Obviously, this is a sharp and significant departure from what came before. The hardliners in the South Florida electorate exerted a grip on the policymaking process that derived from their influence first on presidential elections – and the Electoral College significance of Florida – which they then leveraged over Members of Congress in the 49 other states.

Dr. Moreno’s data – very much in line with what we have read and reported on previously – shows fundamentally they have lost control over the voting preferences of “Young Cubans and those who arrived in the United States recently (after 1992),” who are likely to abandon the GOP in even greater numbers with the nomination of Mr. Trump.

We report on this disorder not for partisan reasons, but because of what it means for the prospects of legislation to end the embargo completely when the new Congress convenes in 2017.

It must have been a stunning week for Rep. Ros-Lehtinen. She tweeted all week about the Kardashians’ visit to Cuba (to be honest, we were sympathetic to her comment, “haven’t the #Cuban ppl suffered enough?”) but went radio silent when several news agencies reported that a four-member security delegation from Cuba’s government had been led on a “familiarization tour” of Joint Interagency Task Force South, a facility playing a key role against narco-trafficking. Not a tweet or a peep about the visitors posing a security risk.

There is, in fact, very little she can say, when 94,000 Americans, as well as 115,000 Cuban Americans, broke records by visiting Cuba in the first quarter of 2016 at the highest levels ever recorded, so much so that Cuban diplomat Josefina Vidal tweeted about it. Or when the Chief Economist of the Salt Lake City Chamber of Commerce, “no fan of Cuban human rights violations, limited freedoms and other flaws,” publishes an op-ed in the Deseret News, Utah’s major daily newspaper, saying that the future of U.S. Cuba relations “will spring from engagement, not separation.”

The country has changed, just like South Florida has changed, and these shifts can only reinforce each other going forward.

With Rep. Ros-Lehtinen neutral in the November election, it becomes pretty difficult for her and other supporters of the embargo in both political parties to make an effective stand against lifting it, especially if that’s what the next president makes a priority of his or her administration.

Let other Members of Congress take note. No excuses. Read the rest of this entry »

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.

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