Veto Redux

May 22, 2015

Step-by-step, legislation is working its way through Congress to curtail much of the progress President Obama is making in U.S.-Cuba relations by cutting the funds needed by federal agencies to implement his new policies.

Today, we ask: Will those who benefit most from the new policies that encourage travel and trade with Cuba do nothing but stand on the sidelines in the expectation that President Obama will veto the bills that reverse them?

In 2011, after President Obama reinstated the rules allowing Cuban Americans to visit their relatives on the island and permitting all Americans to send remittances to Cubans, hardliners used the budget process to prevent the policies from being implemented.

Back then, the White House issued a policy statement promising to veto the legislation unless the budget riders on Cuba were removed. The President’s supporters, who comprised the majority in the Senate, kept the provisions out of the big budget bills that finally emerged from paralysis and delays on Capitol Hill. Legislation reversing the modest but hopeful travel and remittance reforms never reached the President’s desk.

As a result, hundreds of thousands of journeys between the United States and Cuba have taken place every year reuniting families, while increasing numbers of Cubans receiving the economic support they needed to run their own businesses and lead more independent lives.

This is a different time. On December 17th, the President changed the whole intent of U.S. policy and the architecture of U.S.-Cuba relations.

For the first time in six decades, the U.S. government is encouraging citizen diplomacy, greater travel and trade, the telecommunications, travel, and other industries, to build relationships and stronger ties with Cuban counterparts — putting our country on the side of Cubans succeeding, rather than rooting for the Cuban government and system to fail.

That is why Jet Blue and other airlines are expanding charter services and planning commercial routes, why ferry companies are planning to set sail for Havana, why Airbnb and Netflix are hoping to build real businesses in the Cuban market, why Governors like Andrew Cuomo are trying to position companies in their states to succeed.

It is why Americans across the country, and Cuban Americans in the communities where they live, are so deeply committed to a policy that puts the Cold War behind us and puts our country on the right side of history.

Unless the Congress pulls the plug with the budget riders they’ve put into play.

The House Appropriations Committee has already voted to ground new commercial or charter flights that come into being after March 15, 2015 in the transportation department budget bill.

Jet Blue and Tampa International Airport — that means you.

A similar set of restrictions in the same measure would stop the new ferries from ever leaving port, despite one estimate that says every ship put into service would provide as much as $340 million back into Florida’s economy.

Fort Lauderdale, Tampa, Orlando, Miami? Don’t spend it yet.

Then, there’s the Commerce Department bill shutting down U.S. exports to Cuba. Telecommunications firms? Others? Better dial 9-11.

Even worse, as USA Today reports, there are budget restrictions yet to be voted on: restoring the limits on travel and restricting the use of American dollars on the island — take that MasterCard and American Express.

Where are the adults?

Not in the House. Speaker John Boehner, as the Washington Post reported this morning is giving the greenlight to hardliners who are “interested in stopping this progression toward normal relations with Cuba.”

Certainly not in the Senate, where hardliners won’t allow an Ambassador to be confirmed to represent our country and its interests in the new embassy in Havana, should they allow it the funds to open at all.

Here’s the bottom line. Whether Congress follows the regular order and starts enacting bills to finance Cabinet departments separately — or it wraps them all together in one giant package — sooner or later all these restrictions are going to land with a thump and a thud on President Obama’s Oval Office desk.

Congress may even force him to choose between closing down his Cuba policy and shutting down the federal government.

We think the President will warm up his veto pen and choose to save a policy that is good for our country, good for Cubans, and a cornerstone of his foreign policy legacy.

And so we ask again, as we did at the outset: will those who stand to benefit most from his decisions make him face that choice alone?

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Escape Velocity? The Accelerating Pace of Change in U.S.-Cuba Relations

May 15, 2015

The Media General National Desk must like using edgy headlines for click bait. How else can they explain “Possible lung cancer vaccine another perk stemming from new U.S.-Cuba relations”?

A “perk”?

If a tumor-starving therapy that holds promise to greatly improve the lives of cancer patients can now be called a “perk,” that’s a telling sign of how quickly relations between Cuba and the United States are moving, just five months after the breakthrough diplomatic agreement reached by Presidents Obama and Castro.

That accelerating pace of change is happening on so many levels.

It’s evident in the travel space, where Airbnb is reporting that after just one month of operating in Cuba the island has become the fastest-growing market the on-line reservations site has ever served.

Those rooms in casas particulares, where American travelers can engage closely with their Cuban hosts, cannot come on line fast enough – as flights expand from Tampa, Baltimore, New York and elsewhere, and once ferries begin heading for Havana from ports along Florida’s coast.

The pick-up in the pace of change is evident in the cultural arena, as the Minnesota Orchestra hits the stage at the Teatro Nacional for a Beethoven-centered concert that will be broadcast on consecutive nights throughout Cuba starting this very evening.

It’s also evident on the diplomatic front. Just last night, the U.S. State Department announced that U.S. and Cuban negotiators will convene in Washington on May 21 – a little more than a week before Cuba comes off the terror list – setting aside one more obstacle to our two countries opening embassies and exchanging ambassadors.

You can even feel it in the Congress, where thirty-seven members of the United States Senate have cosponsored Senator Jeff Flake’s Freedom to Travel to Cuba legislation repealing the ban on legal travel so all Americans can visit  the island.

To say that this is a big change would be a gross understatement. You can’t even count the number of Senate cosponsors on travel legislation in the last Congress, because there weren’t any. Although a travel bill was dropped – and buried – in the U.S. House, nobody sponsored Freedom to Travel legislation during the 113th Session of the Senate; a sure sign that even the symbolism of supporting it wasn’t compelling for Senators who didn’t think a bill would go anywhere.

Now that there’s a herd – or heard – effect at work, it’s easy to imagine 37 cosponsors as a floor and not a ceiling for the Senate travel bill.

Ending the travel ban is not wishful thinking in the 114th Congress.

When you have 56% of Cuban Americans telling pollsters and 59% of respondents in a recent national survey (with many more showing the same result), supporting the unrestricted freedom to travel…

When you see the interests growing – as state governors, large businesses and trade associations, marine scientists and musicians, cancer researchers and cancer patients, and many others – for realizing the benefits of a new, more open relationship with Cuba…

When Senators who may have previously sat on the sidelines, or deferred to opponents with stronger opinions, increasingly hear the voices of all of these people demanding change, you know that more of them are going to move to the winning side.

As the late Lee Atwater used to say, “I am going to be for what’s going to happen anyway.” That’s Washington’s definition of pure momentum.

This doesn’t mean that everything’s perfect, that disagreements won’t arise in bilateral negotiations, or that unrepentant hardliners like Senator Rubio won’t reimpose sanctions on Cuba if elected President, as he pledged again to do this week.

Yes, we’re moving with increasing speed away from the Cold War into mutually respectful policies of the digital age, but we haven’t quite hit escape velocity yet.

Just watch our headlines. If you start seeing click-bait – Pet Food lawsuit attracts hundreds of calls, emails to the case! – you’ll know we’ve made it to the other side.

In the meantime, please enjoy the weekend with our Cuba Central News Blast, and take another listen to Jackson Browne’s Going Down to Cuba.  We expect to see you there soon. Read the rest of this entry »


A Hat Tip to the Patron Saint and the Ferry Godfather of Normalization

May 8, 2015

The Vatican has offered little explanation for this Sunday’s meeting between President Raul Castro and Pope Francis, apart from Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi‘s comment that it was “strictly private,” and not an official state visit.

Indeed, the first reports were about its timing — four months before the Pontiff is to visit Cuba — not the context.

Yet, comments by the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, reported by Vatican Insider last month made clear that when Pope Francis touches down in Havana ahead of his September visit to the United States, his guiding purpose would be as much political as pastoral, to advance the normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States.

“Clearly this process is only in the early stages, and remains fragile since after so many years of uncommunicativeness and incomprehension it is not easy to walk into a climate of trust and mutual understanding, which is the very foundation for diplomatic progress,” Parolin said. “The Pope’s visit is with the intention of encouraging this process, and to urge them not to be afraid of what it could involve.”

As the Wall Street Journal reported last December, “papal diplomacy was a key to the Obama administration’s push over the past 18 months to overturn half a century of U.S. policies built around shunning Cuba.”

The Pope had stellar qualifications to serve in this role.

As a Cardinal, Pope Francis accompanied Pope John Paul II on his historic visit to Cuba in 1998. He wrote following that trip, “The motives which led the United States to impose the embargo have been entirely superseded in the present time.”

Tim Padgett, in an analysis published earlier this year, ascribed interests to Pope Francis, an Argentine, that “stem from both his papacy’s emphasis on aiding the poor and his portfolio as the first Latin American pontiff.”

Cubans appear to sense and support the Pope for his investment in the process. As the Washington Post reported, eighty percent of 1,200 Cubans surveyed by Univision Noticias and Fusion Networks gave Francis a positive rating, an impressive result in a state with meager weekly church attendance.

The White House took to Twitter to signal President Obama’s support for the Papal visit. “President Obama is pleased that His Holiness Pope Francis will visit Cuba on his way to the US later this year,” tweeted Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes.

The visit by President Castro to the Vatican, along with Cuba’s decision to welcome the Pope for his visit in September, signal ongoing support for what he has done and continues to do to support the normalization process.

This would be a very good time for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to approve a resolution introduced by Senator Richard Durbin (IL), cosponsored by Ranking Minority Member Ben Cardin (MD), which commends Pope Francis for his leadership in securing the release of Alan Gross and for working with Cuba and the United States to achieve a more positive relationship. It has awaited action by the Committee since January.

If Pope Francis is the patron saint of normalization, than certainly President Obama is its “ferry Godfather.”

This week, the administration offered regulatory approval for American operators seeking to reinstate ferry service to and from Cuba for the first time since such travel was barred by the U.S. embargo.

In the intervening decades, air charters have been the only means of conveyance for Cuban Americans and others to visit Cuba on trips licensed by the federal government. As we’re reminded in this poignant story, refugees leaving the island braved the seas by themselves. While charters play an essential role, reinstating ferry service has profound economic implications.

As John Hay lucidly explains:

“Existing charter flights run at least $400 per round trip, and baggage overages for those bringing goods back to Cuba bump up the price substantially. The ferries promise to reduce those costs, increase transit regularity and scale, and build a 200-plus-pound-per-person cargo capacity into ticket prices. This could make the ferry lines functionally the largest everyday development in normalization to date.”

Bruce Nierenberg, president of United Caribbean Lines, sees an even broader impact. As he explained to Newsweek, “We are approaching the project not just as a ferry operation but as a new, important economic driver for both countries, and development of a ferry system for the Caribbean.”

Despite the President and the Pope’s divine intervention, two policymakers in the U.S. Congress remain unpersuaded. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, as we reported last week, has written restrictions into a Department of Transportation budget bill to stop the ferry service from ever leaving port.

And, if there’s a Spanish equivalent for the word “Chutzpah,” that would be an apt characterization of Senator Bob Menendez’s remarks, in which he told his erstwhile nemesis, The Daily Caller, “It’s hard to believe that ferry service which is more of a commute is going to actually promote purposeful travel which is still the law of the land versus tourism.”

He’s a U.S. Senator, after all, so he must know the law.

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Progress vs Congress, Lead Them Not Into Temptation

May 1, 2015

There’s a lot to like about what has happened since Presidents Obama and Castro declared their intentions to restore diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba.

Forget that stuff the hardliners say that President Obama is the worst negotiator since Neville Chamberlain, and start by remembering what Cuba’s government agreed to do and has already done.

As a result of the December 17th agreement, the Cuban government freed 53 political prisoners. They released a spy who worked for the CIA who they’d held for nearly two decades. They agreed to joint talks on human rights and have already met with U.S. diplomats to develop a framework for those negotiations.

They’re acting on a pledge to increase Internet access and cut costs while opening hundreds of new cyber cafés that will be available to public. Direct phone service between our countries is being restored. Alan Gross is home and, as Southwest Airlines might say, he’s free to roam around our country.

And there’s more progress in the offing as diplomats on both sides work on opening embassies, exchanging ambassadors, and forging potential agreements on matters from civil aviation and telecommunications to extraditing fugitives from justice in both countries.

The Cuban people like what has happened so far. Changes in U.S. policy are already responsible for an uptick in travel by Americans to the island, generating more business for the private entrepreneurs who run the growing number of restaurants, beds-and-breakfasts, and tourism-related services, like the taxi and chauffeur company operated by our friends at Nostalgicar. An economic forecast published by Translating Cuba estimates that this new activity will produce an additional increase in Cuba’s GDP by a half-percent.

Small wonder that a Fusion/Univision poll conducted in Cuba last month found that “A near-unanimous majority — 97 percent — say that better relationship with the U.S. would benefit Cuba.”

Xinhua, the official press agency of the People’s Republic of China, thinks so too. In a news analysis it published this week, Xinhua said, “As Havana aims to normalize relations with Washington, it is inevitable for the island state to carry out political and economic reforms.”

The enthusiasm for closer relations among Cubans is matched by measurably growing interest among Americans to visit the island.  Sojern, a marketing firm in San Francisco, found a 360% increase in on-line searches for Cuba travel the day after the December 17th announcement. The survey also found that online searches for travel to Cuba from the United States “shot up 184% in the first three months of this year,” compared with the same period in 2014.

Sojern’s findings are consistent with another poll released this week by YouGov and financed by Airbnb, which began offering rentals in Cuba in March. The survey, conducted April 23-24, found that thirty percent of Americans are planning or would consider a holiday to Cuba within the next two years. Among Latino Americans, the number reaches 40%.

With Airbnb open for business in Cuba, and with robust demand for existing charter services kindling a growing desire among U.S. airlines for regularly scheduled commercial routes, contact between the people of the United States and Cuba is likely to blossom.

That is precisely what U.S. religious leaders are praying for.  The promise of closer relations is already being fulfilled by pastors from places like Utah, who are seeing the beginnings of a religious renaissance on the island.

The visual evidence of their pastoral work is compelling. Is it possible, however, that off-camera the Episcopal Diocese of Utah’s Bishop and ten other Episcopal Bishops also made time for “snorkeling, cigar factory tours, salsa dancing lessons, and other obvious tourist activities”?

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (FL-25) seems to think so. Diaz-Balart, who serves as chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee which funds the U.S. Transportation Department, won approval this week for provisions blocking the new flights and ferry cruises to Cuba made possible by President Obama’s reforms. We don’t expect the bill to pass both Houses of Congress, and it would likely face a presidential veto if it did.

Nonetheless, Diaz-Balart called President Obama’s lifting of restrictions on people-to-people travel “an obvious attempt to circumvent the tourism ban.” He went on to say, “allowing cruises to dock in Cuba would violate both the spirit and the letter of U.S. law.”

“Under these circumstances,” he declared, “Congress cannot remain idle.”

Yep. With so many things moving in the right direction, and with U.S. companies now eying Cuba as an export market for fertilizers, now would be just the time for Congress to shake off its lethargy and act.

God help us.

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Hardliners Offer Concessions on Cuba — Concessions to Reality

April 24, 2015

This week, we want to tell you a story about Rep. Ros-Lehtinen’s sudden about-face on President Obama’s decision to drop Cuba from the state sponsors of terror list.

It’s a little “in the weeds,” but it dramatizes how much the debate on Cuba has changed since we learned that Presidents Obama and Castro agreed to restore diplomatic relations.

We begin on January 8 of this year when Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-27) introduced H.R. 204, the North Korea Sanctions and Diplomatic Non-recognition Act of 2015, to reverse a decision taken by the Bush administration to drop North Korea from the state sponsors list.

To accomplish this result, she wrote legislation which says in part, “Notwithstanding the decision by the Secretary of State on October 11, 2008,” to remove North Korea from the list, Congress was putting them back on the list and re-imposing the sanctions because “the Government of North Korea is a state sponsor of terrorism.”

When she introduced the legislation, no one questioned if Rep. Ros-Lehtinen had the authority to propose it. In fact, the Congressional Record published this definitive statement: “Congress has the power to enact this legislation pursuant to the following: Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution.”

If Rep. Ros-Lehtinen had the power to stick North Korea back on the terror list in January, what could possibly stop her from sticking it to President Obama in April with similar legislation once he decided to remove Cuba from the terror list?

She had ample advanced warning to write the Cuba version of this bill. It was 128 days ago that President Obama ordered a State Department review of Cuba’s terror list designation.

On April 7, when the State Department recommended that Cuba be dropped from the list, Rep. Ros-Lehtinen called out the President for “ignoring the Castro brothers continued policies in support of terrorism by providing safe haven to foreign terrorist organizations and repeated violations of international sanctions.”

Then, on April 14, when the President made his finding, Rep. Ros-Lehtinen released a statement condemning the administration for “rushing to embrace two decrepit tyrants in their twilight,” and concluded, “President Obama’s decision to remove Cuba from the State Sponsor of Terror list is based on politics and not facts.”

It sounded to us that she was spoiling for a fight. That was until John Hudson left us gob smacked with this eye-popping breaking news report: Congress won’t block Obama from Delisting Cuba on Terror List.

Wait! Is that true? What will Rep. Ros-Lehtinen say about that?

“We can’t undo it,” she told Foreign Policy on Wednesday. “We just got the word from the parliamentarian: It’s a no-go.”

Thinking there must be some mistake, we turned to the Miami Herald, her hometown newspaper; what did she tell them?

“She changed course.” She changed course?

This is what the Herald reported: “Legally, Ros-Lehtinen said, Congress can’t prevent the White House from taking Cuba off the list because not all the statutes that govern designation of a country as a state sponsor of terrorism provide a way for Congress to block a de-listing.”

This is very hard to understand. In January, her “Reinstate North Korea as a terror state” bill had the Constitution on her side. In April, she collects 35 co-sponsors on her “remake Cuba a terror-supporting state” bill, but gets a surprise ruling from the House parliamentarian and “changes course”?

What is this new course? Cuba gets off the terror list without a fight, but she plans to file “broader legislation” that will protect U.S. national security and maintain our advocacy for human rights on the island.

What explains the Congresswoman’s about-face? Was it the parliamentarian or was it the polls? CNN reported today that 59% of Americans approve of the decision to remove Cuba from the terror list, and just 38% disapprove. Maybe it was just politics.

As Christopher Sabatini, a scholar of United States-Cuba relations at Columbia University, told the New York Times, “This was the hard-liners’ white flag. They had been planning to present a piece of legislation in the allotted 45 days to overturn the removal of Cuba from the list, but couldn’t get a majority. Rather than risk looking even more isolated, they abandoned it.”

Earlier this month, the hardliners called the decision to drop Cuba from the list a concession to the Castro dictatorship. That must make their decision to drop the legislation reinstating them a concession to reality.

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Stating the Obvious — Obama says Cuba’s not a Terror State

April 17, 2015

Here at Cuba Central, the remarkable changes in U.S.-Cuba relations have inflicted collateral damage on two of our most cherished metaphors.

Once, we were fond of the phrase, “U.S.-Cuba policy is stuck in the amber of its own ineffectiveness.” But, after the 2009 and 2011 travel and remittance reforms, the policy started to be unstuck. So, we retired it.

Today, we sadly wave goodbye to our beloved comparison of Cuba policy to “the self-licking ice cream cone.”

The “self-licking ice cream cone,” a phrase invented by Brigadier General Simon P. Worden, describes a process “that offers few benefits and exists primarily to justify or perpetuate its own existence” — as in the case of Alan Gross.

Before Alan Gross was freed from prison as part of last December’s diplomatic breakthrough, hardliners declared that the Obama administration should not negotiate for his release or change a single word of U.S. sanctions policy until he was freed unconditionally.

Hardliners applied the same pretzel logic to Cuba’s false designation as a state sponsor of terror. So long as Cuba remained on the list, they could brandish the argument that Americans shouldn’t visit or spend money there, in order to defend pointless and self-defeating policies like the ban on travel, which amounts to an abridgement of our basic rights as Americans.

With the elegant simplicity of Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes’ 133-character tweet — “Put simply, POTUS is acting to remove #Cuba from the State Sponsor of Terrorism list because Cuba is not a State Sponsor of Terrorism” — the thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations caused the “self-licking ice cream cone” metaphor to melt in our hands.

To President Obama, the evidence spoke for itself.

Even the Miami Herald found this logic compelling. Its editorial board responded to the news of Cuba’s delisting by admitting that the designation no longer fit Cuba and no longer reflected the world as it had become:

“As politically unpalatable as it may seem, the Obama administration’s decision to remove Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism is an inevitable bow to reality… Crossing Cuba off the list should not be deemed a reward but an acknowledgment of the change in behavior.”

But of course we can still count the Cold Warriors in Congress as unconvinced. They clutched the ice cream cone as if it hadn’t melted, as if the world hasn’t changed, as if the evidence and the powerful affirmation of the most influential historically pro-sanctions hometown newspaper meant nothing.

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (FL- 25) said in a statement, “Today, the administration has jeopardized U.S. national security by choosing to absolve the Castro dictatorship of its dangerous anti-American terrorist activities across the globe.”

Florida Senator Marco Rubio, on his first day as a presidential candidate, declared, “Cuba is a state sponsor of terrorism,” and blasted the decision as a “chilling message to our enemies abroad that this White House is no longer serious about calling terrorism by its proper name.”

Dumfounding, to say the least.

Diaz-Balart’s stand might cost the Miami Herald a subscription or two, but CNN points out that Rubio’s absolute commitment to keeping sanctions on Cuba is likely to cost him Cuban American votes in his presidential campaign in Florida, as well as millennial votes across the country. He is on the wrong side of history and the generational divide.

As Latino Decisions wrote recently, Cuban American hardliners represent “a generation that is out-of-step with younger Cubans and the broader Latino electorate in Florida. Looking forward to the 2016 presidential election, U.S. relations with Cuba will not mobilize Cuban-American voters, and to the degree that it does, it will be in support of opening the island to American commerce and values.”

In other words, the choice between living in the past and the future has more than political ramifications.

Like denying the overwhelming scientific evidence of climate change and the economic and environmental damage it is already doing in Florida and elsewhere, denying that diplomacy offers a greater chance than sanctions at realizing the values that most Americans and Cubans share leaves the hardliners look locked in a bygone age.

Diplomats for Cuba and the U.S. have already met to hammer out a framework for discussing human rights. They will soon sit down to exchange views on the return of fugitives from justice currently enjoying refuge in Cuba and the U.S.

Differences on problems like human rights matter. Unless we give diplomacy the chance to work, we can never know if those differences can be reconciled — or resolved to the satisfaction of all — but this is the choice demanded by changing times.

So we must ask opponents of normalization: Do you live in the present or the past? Do you live in the world of sanctions or diplomacy? Do you live in the world, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, that’s busy being born or dying?

As the ground shifts beneath the feet of our leaders, those are the questions they must answer.

ANNOUNCEMENT:

The Center for Democracy in the Americas is offering a special opportunity to bring our supporters to Cuba and support CDA’s work to end the embargo.

Last December, President Obama announced sweeping reforms in U.S. policy toward Cuba. You are invited to be part of our people-to-people trip to celebrate this historic policy victory and to hear from the people that this change will benefit most — Cubans. We will meet with young entrepreneurs, students, and artists about their renewed optimism for the future now that President Obama has significantly eased sanctions and allowed for greater exchange and dialogue between our countries.

The trip will take place June 17-22. Space is limited, so please contact us if as soon as possible you are interested in joining us or if you would like more information.

You — our supporters — were part of this historic diplomatic opening. We sincerely hope you take this opportunity to celebrate with us.

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Surprisingly Substantive Summit

April 10, 2015

If the past inevitably was prologue, Western Hemisphere leaders attending the 7th Summit of the Americas in Panama could simply mail (or email) in the predictable results.

The U.S. President would brush aside criticisms of having ignored the region, yet again. He’d lecture the attendees on reducing deficits and trade barriers and raising democratic standards, and pose awkwardly with his counterparts, perhaps in a gaily decorated Guayabera, before rounding up the Secret Service and jumping aboard Air Force One.

This year the Summit is different. It’s not a complete departure from the past, but a welcome break with what has come before.

President Obama entered the Summit Friday morning having created a different context. The United States and Cuba are on the cusp of restoring diplomatic relations. He welcomed the chance to sit with Raul Castro at the table with the rest of our hemisphere’s leaders. His administration has deported two of the most notorious Salvadorans who can now face responsibility for heinous human rights violations during their country’s civil war. He drew the line last fall on Congressional inaction and used his executive authority to reform U.S. immigration policy, and followed up with a significant aid package for the region.

One misstep that should not be minimized is the administration’s decision to slap sanctions on seven Venezuelans, claiming that violations of human rights and the democratic process in their country threatened U.S. national security. At least it provided a useful reminder of the gap that still exists between the region’s adherence to the principle of sovereignty and our country’s belief in the universality of human rights and consequent self-assigned role of enforcer.

Cuba walks on the Summit stage for the first time, not as a sidekick in a unique set of negotiations, but as a regional actor in a complicated and nuanced place itself. Cuba is playing a central role in peace talks which hold the promise this year of settling the civil war between Colombia and the FARC. It joins a Summit largely united behind its greatest ally, Venezuela, and against the United States on the issue of sanctions. But it also finds itself in a region collectively hobbled by a slowing economy and declining prices for oil and natural resources.

For the moment, the Summit is a milestone for Cuba’s diplomacy and Raul Castro’s leadership. Looking forward, however, Cuba must find a place less defined by Cold War hostilities of the past, and more focused on how it can pass along a viable economy to a next generation that is committed to staying on the island and keeping its values relevant and alive. Fist fights on the streets of Panama City over competing definitions of “civil society” are not the way to the future.

There are real issues — compelling and important — on the conference table that need to be considered outside the Cuba-U.S. context. “Prosperity with equity, and the challenge of cooperation in the Americas,” may be a mediocre slogan, but it is a reasonably fair statement of what might bring the North and South together. Summits rarely end with decisive results, but this one could be heading in the right direction.

There is every indication that Cuba will finally come off the U.S. state sponsors of terror list. When this happens, the restoration of diplomatic relations will not be far behind. We can soon count the days before a Cuban raises his country’s flag above his nation’s embassy on 16th Street in Washington, and our country’s flag flutters in the breeze off the Malecón in Havana. These vivid images will illustrate how President Obama’s belief in engagement is being vindicated by results.

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