The Year of Living Diplomatically

July 22, 2016

“We have a new course in U.S.-Cuba relations…and we’re trying to make as much progress as possible so the policy is viewed as in the best interests of the U.S. and irreversible.”

Our man in Havana, Jeffrey DeLaurentis, the U.S. Chargé d’Affaires in Havana, made these comments to the Xinhua news agency this week summarizing what’s been accomplished through diplomacy in the year since the U.S. Embassy reopened in Havana.

Diplomacy has produced a substantial body of work, as the fact sheet released by the State Department makes clear. The U.S. and Cuba have signed ten agreements with another seven in train and may be ready before the end of this year. Fifty-five years of stalemated statecraft saw only five agreements between the two countries that remain in force today, as Cuba’s chief negotiator in the normalization talks, Josefina Vidal, observed in comments to Granma. This is what happens when the U.S. talks to Cuba, and Cuba talks to us.

But, while we rightly celebrate this first year of diplomacy with Cuba, the Cold Warriors and party poopers who pine for the old policy of punishing of Cuba with tighter sanctions view the success of negotiations as a failure. As Tim Padgett wrote this week, “They’ve declared engagement with Cuba a flop because it hasn’t achieved in 365 days what isolating Cuba couldn’t do in 55 years.”

For example, in case you thought Senator Marco Rubio was posturing for his presidential campaign by blocking the appointment of a U.S. ambassador to Cuba, he is pledging to do the same thing next year, now that he is running for reelection to the Senate in Florida this year.

He told Politico on Wednesday, “A U.S. ambassador is not going to influence the Cuban government, which is a dictatorial, closed regime.” He doesn’t even want an Ambassador in Havana with direct access to highly placed Cuban officials to give it the old college try.

Rubio’s antipathy toward diplomacy is shared by like-minders on the other side of the U.S. Capitol. If the State Department budget bill written by the House Appropriations Committee becomes law, Ambassador DeLaurentis will be prohibited from adding staff or enlarging his already inadequate facilities.

Such limits are ideological, not rational. They come at a moment, as Senator Jeff Flake said, when “There are going to be too many Americans traveling to Cuba and doing legal business in Cuba to deny them the opportunity to have a full-fledged diplomatic presence there.”

From now to the end of President Obama’s term, rationality is likely to prevail; if only because he is unlikely to sign legislation that reverses the long-sought gains of his Cuba policy, and Congress – on a seven-week recess now and in Washington for just a month this fall before skipping town to campaign for reelection – is not going to work long or hard enough to repeal them.

With the President’s term winding down, there’s much left to do and shrinking time to do it. As the Miami Herald observed this week, “daunting issues remain [including] the embargo, claims for confiscated property of U.S. citizens and corporations, differences over human rights, migration, return of fugitives from justice, and Cuban demands for reparations for damages from the embargo and the return of the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay.”

We encourage the Obama administration to take advantage of the Congressional absence, and put the accelerator to the floor on U.S.-Cuba diplomacy to try and get done as much of this as possible.

Negotiating is a sign of strength, not weakness; as the great Cold Warrior, Winston Churchill, famously said:  “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.” Getting more agreements in place, as Ambassador DeLaurentis said, will be in both countries’ interests and will help make the policy irreversible.

This week, in Cuba news… Read the rest of this entry »

On Cuba, the Republican Party Platform Repudiates Obama and Trump

July 15, 2016

Earlier this week in Cleveland, State Senator Eric Brakey of Maine tried to make some changes to his party’s foreign policy platform. Leigh Ann Caldwell of NBC News says Brakey thought the Cuba plank was isolationist.

That seemed odd, since Donald Trump’s position on President Obama’s opening with Cuba – it’s “fine, but I think we should make a much better deal” – seemed reasonably pro-engagement, and normally a national party platform tracks the positions of the party’s nominee.

Not this year, apparently. Although as of this writing, the platform hasn’t been made public, an early draft did make it into our hands. It turns out brave Senator Brakey didn’t make any headway. The language in this document is a lot closer to the Platt Amendment than to the Donald’s negotiating position.

Although the platform is still subject to change, this is apparently what the party intends to say about how it would run U.S. policy toward Cuba after President Obama leaves office:

“We want to welcome the people of Cuba back into our hemispheric family – after their corrupt rulers are forced from power and brought to account for their crimes against humanity. We stand with the Women in White [sic] and all the victims of the loathsome regime that clings to power in Havana. We do not say this lightly: They have been betrayed by those who are currently in control of U.S. foreign policy. The current Administration’s ‘opening to Cuba’ was a shameful accommodation to the demands of its tyrants. It will only strengthen their military dictatorship.

“We call on the Congress to uphold current U.S. law which sets conditions for the lifting of sanctions on the island: legalization of political parties, an independent media and free and fair internationally-supervised elections. We call for a dedicated platform for the transmission of Radio and TV Martí and for the promotion of internet access and circumvention technology as tools to strength(en) Cuba’s pro-democracy movement. We support the work of the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba and affirm the principles of the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, recognizing the rights of Cubans fleeing Communism.”

This is your father’s foreign policy, like traveling in time with Peabody and Sherman in the “way back machine.” The Cuba plank endorses President Johnson’s immigration policy, recommits to President Reagan’s listener-free Radio and TV Martí, asserts the primacy of Helms-Burton, breathes life into the Bush-era regime-change commission, and seeks the promotion of “circumvention technology,” which sounds suspiciously like what got Alan Gross in all sorts of trouble ending with a lengthy stay in prison.

Strangely, the platform says nothing about the rights of Cuban Americans to visit their families in Cuba without restrictions; nothing about the people-to-people travel rights of every other American; nothing about Starwood Hotel, Airbnb, or the wireless carriers who allow U.S. travelers roam with their cellphones in Cuba; nothing about the good people working to protect our nation’s interests in the U.S. Embassy in Havana. Could a platform this backward-looking mean to leave those accomplishments in place? We’re left to guess not.

Either way, this amounts to a return to the status quo ante, to the Cold War days when our two governments didn’t speak, when Latin America was utterly united against the U.S. position, and when Cubans were burdened by a climate of fear and hostility they do not want to see again.

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On Cuba and ‘Making Gentle the Life of This World’

July 8, 2016

This week, the Obama administration and the U.S. Congress sent contrary signals about the direction of U.S. policy on the subject of travel by Americans to Cuba.

The Department of Transportation awarded routes from the U.S. to Havana to eight commercial carriers, vastly expanding opportunities to visit Cuba for people-to-people travelers. However, an amendment to the Treasury Department’s budget bill that would have legalized all forms of travel to Cuba was set aside by the sponsor, because Speaker Paul Ryan was collecting votes to prevent its passage – and that was before the House adopted the bill and some pro-embargo provisions.

These developments – along with new reporting on Cuba’s energy conservation measures, action by U.S. Mayors calling for an end to the embargo, and the prospect of Congress acting in support of farm sales to the island – are summarized in our news brief below.

We curated these articles cognizant that our readers will be seeing them at the same time we in the U.S. are trying to understand the storm of violence that ripped through this country, north to south, in the last four days. It’s an awful moment when words are both insufficient and in excess supply, and yet it would be wrong not even to mention what is happening before us.

Let us simply say this.

Nearly fifty years ago, Robert F. Kennedy offered this advice to a suffering nation in a remarkable address that inspires us to this day.

“Let’s dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.”

Thank you for reading what we have to offer today.

This week, in Cuba news:

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Happy July 4th Weekend (just don’t read this while driving)

July 1, 2016

At the start of the U.S. celebration of Independence Day, it is sheer coincidence that the top four news stories you’ll read below are travel-related, driven by smart changes in U.S. policy and indicative of the vital role U.S. businesses can play contributing to normalization.

Here’s a preview: If you were in Cuba right now and needed some cash, you could use your Stonegate-issued MasterCard at an ATM in Havana. If you plan to book a flight with American Airlines, whose service to Cuba starts in September, you will be able to contact a new Cuba-specific reservations desk to get help obtaining a visa for your trip. If you want to use your people-to-people travel privileges to see Cuba by ship and automobile, and you qualify for AARP membership, you can book passage with Grand Circle Travel, which will begin its cruise service in January 2017. If you’re thinking about hotels in Cuba, and want a room that feels familiar, you might check out the Quinta Avenida Hotel in Havana, now operating as a Four Points Sheraton.

Without the exercise of Presidential leadership on key policy reforms, and decisions by the businesses involved to take some risks, the lead story in the news brief would be about the third bilateral meeting on the environment (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

American Airlines and Grand Circle Travel enter the Cuban market under the cover of competition, but without assurances consumers want to buy what they’re selling. Call that consumer risk. Stonegate Bank assumed regulatory risk when it became the first U.S.-based financial institution with a real foothold in Cuba; the substantial fines imposed by this administration and its predecessors for violating Cuba sanctions that are still in force shake lesser institutions down to their shareholders.

Starwood, however, by taking over management responsibilities for hotels in Havana owned by Gaviota, a Cuban state-owned enterprise, willingly assumed the biggest risk; exposing itself to political attack and reputational damage from click-baiting but factually accurate headlines like this one, Starwood begins managing hotel run by military in Cuba, from the Associated Press.

By awarding Starwood a license authorizing this arrangement, the Obama administration acknowledged a reality of Cuba’s centrally planned economy; namely, that building durable ties between our countries will require U.S. corporations to do business not just with Cuba’s independent small-business sector but also with state-owned enterprises, some controlled by Cuba’s military. Establishing this precedent is essential to moving the normalization process forward.

Starwood isn’t doing this for charitable reasons: it’s in Cuba to build its brand and make money from global tourists and U.S. guests visiting Havana. Ideally, it will also have knock-on effects and embolden other U.S. companies to seek licenses and bring their operations to the island.

It is our hope that the collective weight of such decisions will persuade policymakers in Washington that the embargo is so past its sell-by date that Congress will finally clear it from the “shelves” of our legal system. At which point doing business in Cuba won’t be require so many regulatory checks and P.R. balances.

This is a good strategy. But, the U.S. campaign finance system, among other factors, stands in our way.

On Wednesday, Senator Marco Rubio held a fundraiser in Washington that, according to Politico, raised at least $500,000. As is customary, Senator Rubio’s campaign committee sent out invitations topped by prominent names and listing suggested donation levels, e.g. a PAC can pay $5,000 and an individual can pony up $2,500 to be listed as sponsors. If you’d like to read his invitation, you can do so here.

Senator Rubio, of course, is an avowed opponent of President Obama’s trade and travel reforms, which lie at the heart of our commercial opening with Cuba. So, it’s no surprise to find Mauricio Claver-Carone’s name among the financially generous supporters of the Senator’s reelection; Claver-Carone’s U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC donated nearly $400,000 to pro-sanctions legislators in the first quarter of 2016 alone.

Unfortunately, it is also no surprise to find on the list: the Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s premier advocate for free trade with Cuba for decades; Holland & Knight, a law firm whose “Cuba Action Team” advises clients on doing business in Cuba; and the American Hotel and Lodging Association’s Political Action Committee, which is urging Congress to “pass additional legislation to open up [Cuba] to American businesses, especially lodging companies who can build new infrastructure in that country to accommodate these additional travelers.”

In Washington, an individual, a company, or an institution that advocates for change and donates to the opponents of the change they stand for is understood to be a rational actor covering his bets.

This isn’t just legal. It’s business as usual. But it also makes deploying some of the most powerful and persuasive advocates for ending the embargo a somewhat more complicated task than it ought to be.

Happy Independence Day.

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Enter Peace

June 24, 2016

As Britons were hitting the exits from the European Union, the world had a moment to appreciate the vote of confidence in peace cast by Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos, as he closed the “End of Conflict and Cessation of Hostilities” ceremonies at the Laguito Convention Center in Havana on Thursday.

“This is a peace of everyone, without exception,” he said. “This is the peace we have been dreaming about.” He then shook hands with “Timonchenko,” the FARC’s guerrilla commander Timoleón Jiménez, who said so powerfully, “May this be the last day of war.”

While the Washington Post emphasized the agreement announced in Havana is not a final accord, it “essentially amounts to an end to the fighting. It means the two sides have worked through some of the most sensitive aspects of their negotiations, particularly the nuts and bolts of getting 7,000 heavily armed FARC fighters to come down from the mountains, lay down their guns and begin a transition to civilian life under the protection of Colombia’s security forces, their lifelong enemies.”

The deal effectively brings to an end a horribly violent 52-year old conflict that killed as many as 220,000 people, Euro News said. The final agreement is expected to be signed July 20th.

This is, of course, an astounding, long-sought achievement by the FARC and Colombia’s government, with the Colombian people the principal beneficiaries. But, it is also an occasion to consider the role that Cuba played in the talks, which began in Havana in November of 2012, and what this process says about the normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States currently underway.

When the ceremony took place, Cuba, along with Norway, was recognized for the role it played as co-guarantor. Thursday, for example, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon congratulated both countries for devoting “considerable diplomatic skills” to the peace process, as did U.S.

Secretary of State John Kerry. At a background briefing, a senior official at the State Department reiterated that “as the host and facilitator of these talks, we believe that Cuba played an important role.”

What was that role? Colombia’s former High Commissioner for Peace, Daniel García-Peña, said yesterday on Democracy Now, “The Cubans have, from the very beginning, offered a very significant support for the process.

“The FARC, as many guerrillas in Colombia and throughout Latin America, see the Cuban revolution and the Cuban government…with great respect. And the pressure that the Cuban government has put on the FARC and the guerrillas has been quite significant, but also the way that they have been very discreet in allowing the Colombians, both the government and the guerrillas, to really take the lead and to drive this process.”

We’d point out that when Cuba’s government was pressuring the FARC to make peace, the U.S. government penalized it with a heavier load of U.S. sanctions due to its State Department designation as a state sponsor of terror; in part, for hosting FARC members in Cuba while the negotiations were taking place. After the December 17th, 2014 diplomatic breakthrough with Cuba, President Obama moved to drop Cuba from the list.

García-Peña also added, “The fact that Cuba is entering into a new moment of its relations with the United States…is one of the aspects that weighed heavily upon the Colombian guerrillas to understand that to continue the armed struggle simply had no future whatsoever.”  What happened in U.S.-Cuba bilateral relations helped nudge the parties closer to peace.

But, Eric Farnsworth, Vice President of the Americas Society and Council of the Americas in Washington, speaking to the Christian Science Monitor, said the U.S. role was also distinctive because we didn’t try to control the process, and we spoke with a lowered voice: “And it has struck a lot of people as a new day in Latin America when the U.S, says, ‘It’s up to you guys to do this deal, but we will do what we can to support it.'”

This suggests that a prediction made by Eric Hershberg and Bill LeoGrande in their new reader, “A New Chapter in U.S.-Cuba Relations,” is coming to pass more quickly than most. In it, they write, “A successful conclusion of peace talks between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) which have been facilitated by Havana, may add to awareness in Washington of the constructive role that Cuba can play in realizing common objectives.” At a time when hardliners in Congress are making mischief with proposals to stop U.S.-Cuba cooperation in security affairs, this points to the need for more collaboration, not less.

Finally it is worth noting how Cuba’s President Raúl Castro framed the achievement in regional and global terms. He said, as Marí­a Peña reported, “Peace will be a victory for Colombia, as well as for all America… In a world disrupted by war and violence, the achievement of peace in Colombia represents a hope for millions of people on the planet whose main preoccupation is survival.”

Britain may have exited, but peace is in the house, at least in Colombia, for everyone, without exception.

This week, in Cuba news…

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Orlando and “the other”

June 17, 2016


By coincidence, one of our first travel delegations landed in Cuba days before 9/11. It wasn’t long before we were heavy with grief and fear. But, we received lasting solace from a man in the Havana historian’s office who quoted José Martí.

The world can be divided into two kinds of men; those who love and create, and those who hate and destroy. I am pleased, he continued, that we (the people of Cuba and the U.S.) are both in the first group.

At a tragically unexpected time, his words were a revelation. Cubans – then, five decades into the U.S. embargo – could sweep aside history and politics to feel our tears on their faces.

It left an indelible impression on us. How could we not be reminded of it – when the White House turned up its nose at Cuba’s offer to send medical doctors to alleviate the suffering of the survivors of Katrina; when U.S. travel restrictions stopped Cuban Americans from attending family funerals on the island; when U.S. policymakers squeezed sanctions tighter without any concern for Cuban families made more desperate to put food on their tables; when U.S. policy falsely designated Cuba as a terrorist state, but let the conspirators who downed a Cuban airliner with a bomb onboard walk the streets of Miami with impunity.

Cubans have long been stigmatized as “the other” by a foreign policy that denies their humanity. Keeping that narrative frozen in place has been very much a hardliner goal – not just among some Cuban Americans, but for all in power who keep a candle burning for the Cold War.

A key element of their strategy is the ban on legal travel: stopping travel to Cuba for most of the last half-century denied the people of our country the chance to see the good or the bad of Cuba for themselves. The travel ban is a clever control over what most of us can learn about the difficulties of Cuban life or the appeal of the Cuban character – freezing in place their identity as “the other.”

As a strategy, it’s been effective. If you look here, you can see that the percentage of Americans who viewed Cuba favorably was stuck for years at or below 30% (in 1997, 81% of Americans viewed Cuba unfavorably). That lasted until 2011. But, after President Obama eliminated all restrictions on Cuban American travel and restored people-to-people travel in his first term, perceptions changed. The power of seeing Cuba – and meeting Cubans – once in the hands of a growing number of travelers has helped transform how our country views their country. Less like the other, more like us.

We can look to recent events large and small, constructive and tragic, for evidence that the idea that we share a common humanity with Cubans is being more broadly realized and redeemed.

This week, for example, Sylvia Burwell, the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, signed an agreement with her Cuban counterpart for our countries to work together on aging, disease, and the fight against cancer.

The agreement, Secretary Burwell said, provided “a historic opportunity for two nations to build on each other’s knowledge and experience, and benefit biomedical research and public health at-large.”

This week as well, Senators from both parties voted to repeal completely the ban on travel by Americans to Cuba, and to eliminate restrictions on agriculture sales that made it more expensive for Cuba to obtain food from its nearest neighbor. Meeting and breaking bread with Cubans could soon be within reach for more Americans. This is what normalization is really about.

Then, there was Orlando. Alejandro Barrios Martínez and Christopher Sanfeliz, two Cuban men, were among the 49 human beings massacred at Pulse early Sunday morning.

Their loss is felt deeply in Cuba. The Cuban LGBTQ rights group Proyecto Arcoíris, planning its annual Kiss-in for Diversity and Unity in Havana later this month, told members on its listserv, “Let this also be our tribute to the LBGTQ community of Orlando.”

A statement from Mariela Castro, the director of Cuba’s National Center for Sex Education, and the leading advocate in Cuba for LGBTQ rights, expressed her solidarity with the people of the U.S. and the LGBTQ community and her condemnation of violence that is an infringement of their human rights.

Her father, Raúl Castro, the President of Cuba, wrote to President Obama on Monday, sending “the most heartfelt condolences from the people and government of Cuba,” and reiterating Cuba’s rejection of any “act of terrorism or hate in any place.”

One of Cuba’s most hardened critics, U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, an opponent of travel between Cuba and the U.S., wrote the U.S. Chief of Mission to Cuba Jeffrey DeLaurentis, to request his help in securing a visa for the mother of Alejandro Barrios Martínez, to come to Orlando and pay her respects, and “make the final arrangements to bring her family comfort.”

Love is love is love.

What a remarkable thing – even when horror forces us to see “the other” as ourselves, and we’re pushed further along on our journey to love and build rather than hate and destroy.

This week, in Cuba news…

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“Slow Jam” the Embargo a Little Faster

June 10, 2016

We couldn’t watch President Barack Obama on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon Slow Jam the News – the racy, ribald segment that’s a sendup of a Barry White soul tune – without smiling at his line “Orange is not the new Black” and thinking, that’s our President.

But, when Mr. Obama snuck a look at his watch and reminded the audience he has a Hawaiian vacation booked “in about 223 days, but who’s counting?” a bit of melancholy crept in.

“The American people face an important decision this fall,” he said. “The entire world is watching and they look to us for stability and leadership. Now, I know that some of the presidential candidates have been critical of my foreign policy. I don’t want to name any names.   But, I believe it is of the utmost importance to work alongside of other world leaders. That’s why I signed the Iran Nuclear Deal. That’s why we reopened diplomatic ties with Cuba.”

Earlier the same day, his deputy national security advisor, Ben Rhodes declared the President’s opening to Cuba is “irreversible.” Rhodes said, “The fact of the matter is that the American people and the Cuban people overwhelmingly want this to happen…Frankly, whatever the political realities in either country, for somebody to try to turn this off, they would have to be working against the overwhelming desires of their own people.”

Turning it off, however, is exactly what Speaker Paul Ryan has in mind. In the National Security plank of his “Better Way” program, Mr. Ryan states “we cannot blindly follow the administration’s normalization plan with communist Cuba,” and promises “to hold the Castro regime accountable, and make sure any further accommodations are met first with real concessions from the Cuban government.”

In other words, no matter who wins the election in November and no matter what the public wants, the Speaker of the U.S. House is committed to sending U.S.-Cuba policy back to the dreadful days of deadlocks and dead-ends.

Which leads us to ask, is the policy irreversible enough? Will the right thinking impulse to work alongside foreign leaders be passed forward?

From now to January 2017, assuming continued Congressional inaction (a safe assumption, we safely assume), every additional reform secured through the exercise of executive authority is a step in the right direction.

Warmer, warmer, right direction, we thought, when we learned Friday that the U.S. Department of Transportation has authorized six U.S. airlines to begin regularly scheduled flights to five cities in Cuba this fall.

This decision was only possible because U.S. and Cuban diplomats sat down and hammered out an agreement in February enabling commercial service to resume for the first time in decades.

Not only is this good for U.S. travelers and airlines, it’s also a victory for the art of diplomacy; a victory that never would have happened under the “Better Way” approach, had we required a concession from Cuba to  give U.S. citizens this liberty back.

To be sure, this decision should provide an economic incentive – what the Washington wags call “skin in the game” – to vest the U.S. travel industry in the Obama Cuba opening and get them to work to make the opening wider still.

At the same time, we hope the administration is thinking even bigger. It’s one thing – a good thing – that the President has been upfront in calling on Congress to end the embargo. It would be ever better if the U.S.–Cuba diplomatic dialogue – on critical matters such as fugitives from justice, property claims, and human rights – could settle differences that are used by the hardliners, the “Better Way” crowd, to hold up the normalization process.

That would take additional bold actions by the leadership of both countries. But, with 222 days left on the President’s watch (yes, we’re counting), this is the right time to “slow jam” the embargo a little faster.

This week, in Cuba news… Read the rest of this entry »


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