Nothing Trumps Sovereignty

September 23, 2016


We in the U.S. owe the government of China about $1.2 trillion. That’s the value of the U.S. Treasury securities held by China that our government sells to finance our debt.

So, here’s a mind exercise: What would happen if China came to us and said, we’d be happy to cancel the debts you owe us, but you’d have to adopt China’s communist system as your own?

$1.2 trillion is a lot of money. But, even in a country as polarized as ours, you wouldn’t find a taker. You could bring that offer to any American among the 7.9 million people who visited the Lincoln Memorial last year, the 4.2 million who went to see the Statue of Liberty, or the 2.4 million who traveled to see Mt. Rushmore in 2015, or to any one of us today.  The only answer you’d hear would sound like a colorful variant of “hell no.” If anyone in our government said yes, it would stir a revolt.

That’s like the devil’s bargain at the center of the U.S. embargo against Cuba. The deal it offers to Cuba is as simple – and as poisonous – as our imagined debt deal with China. Our policy tells Cubans that if they’d just drop their communist system and replace it with ours, we’d stop trying to bankrupt their economy to force their government to collapse.

We’ve been offering this deal for six decades, and the policy has failed because Cubans won’t sacrifice their national sovereignty in exchange for having our embargo lifted.

In Havana on December 17, 2014, when Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro announced their agreement to resume diplomatic relations, we witnessed what seemed like a collective sigh of relief; from the students who marched joyfully past the monuments to Cuba’s wars of independence to the texts exchanged among hard-bitten Habaneros (so-called “Godless communists”) who praised St. Lázaro for his righteous intervention in bringing hostilities with the U.S. to an end.

In remarks broadcast unedited on Cuban state television, President Obama proposed a new deal for Cuba. While he pledged to keep standing for American values in Cuba, he promised not to do so at the price of Cuba’s sovereignty. He said, “It does not serve America’s interests, or the Cuban people, to try to push Cuba toward collapse.”

Although Congressional action is needed to lift the embargo, the President promised to change regulations, e.g. those within his reach to spur more travel and trade, without first extracting concessions from Cuba’s government. This relief from coercion – plus the prospect of closer ties with the U.S. and more prosperous, peaceful times for Cuba’s people – excited that impassioned reaction. Since December 17th, the President has kept his word, implementing wave after wave of Cuba policy reforms.

Historically, Cubans, so deeply affected by U.S. policy, have followed our presidential elections closely; though this season, they’d been less engaged. Both major party candidates had said they supported Mr. Obama’s decision to normalize relations, although Mr. Trump added that he would have cut “a better deal.”

However, in a recent speech he delivered in Miami, the Republican Party nominee said he would reverse President Obama’s policies, unless President Raúl Castro met every one of his demands. This has jolted Cubans into paying much more urgent attention to the 2016 campaign.

As the Associated Press reported, “Cubans are suddenly envisioning the possibility of a U.S. president who would undo measures popular among virtually everyone on the island, from hard-line communists to advocates of greater freedom and democracy.”

This proves that Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis, our top diplomat in Cuba, was absolutely right when he said in an interview with Temas, a Cuban journal this week, “Americans and Cubans have a lot more in common than they think.”

In the U.S. and Cuba, we both love our sovereignty. Sovereignty is a cherished thing that cannot be dealt away. Not for all the T-bills in China, and not for “a better deal” with Cuba.

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#Dumbargo: UN Report Offers Preview of Next U.S. Drubbing for Cuba Embargo

September 16, 2016

Today, we obtained a copy of the UN report sent by the Secretary-General to member states before the General Assembly casts its annual vote on the resolution against the U.S. embargo against Cuba.

As the Washington Post reported last year, this resolution is not legally binding. But, every year since Cuba first offered the anti-embargo measure in 1992, “The United States has never garnered more than three other votes against it.” That year, according to Reuters, only Israel and Romania stood with the U.S., 59 countries voted to approve the resolution, and all other member states abstained.

By 2015 – the year President Obama restored diplomatic relations with Cuba, took Cuba off the terror list, and loosened restrictions on travel and trade – Cuba got 191 votes to condemn U.S. policy. Next month, when the roll call on this year’s resolution is completed, the U.S. and (most likely) Israel will almost certainly stand alone in defense of the indefensible.

We write about this vote every year, even though many news organizations barely pay it any mind. To them, if the United States is getting its diplomatic clock cleaned for the 24th – or this year, 25th – year in a row, that isn’t really news.

But, it might be news to many Americans – who could be forgiven if they think the embargo has gone away – that it is still in place, just as many are unaware that tourist travel to the island is still illegal and subject to punishing fines. After all, President Obama visited the island, JetBlue became the first commercial carrier to resume regularly scheduled flights, Vanity Fair took Rihanna’s picture in Havana, and Conan O’Brien danced and sang oh so memorably on his visit last year.

Despite such mesmerizing images, the embargo continues. Even if the inconvenience it imposes on us can be measured by the cigars we didn’t smoke or the rum we couldn’t drink, the damage our embargo visits on the Cuban people, as Joy Gordon wrote in Harper’s Magazine, “has been, and continues to be, pervasive and profound.”

Hardliners, who want the embargo to remain in place, like to pretend it has magical powers; it can “punish” the leaders of Cuba’s communist government, “starving the Castros of cash,” they like to say, while somehow sparing Cubans of its harsh effects.

Logic tells us that cannot be right, and the Secretary-General’s report affirms that our logic and reality are aligned. In it, the World Food Program shows how U.S. sanctions limit Cuba’s agriculture production and boost food insecurity by raising the bill for the food the country needs to import to feed its people. The UN Development Program reports that the embargo impairs Cuba’s ability to provide medical care and social services to more than 20,000 Cubans of all ages living with HIV/AIDS.

The embargo is, in fact, so pervasive that it runs up the costs of equipping 414 elementary school students enrolled in specialized music programs with violins, violas, and cellos. That might not break your heart, but this might: The embargo makes it extremely difficult for Cuba’s pediatric hospitals, indeed hospitals of all kinds, to obtain parts to repair diagnostic equipment and other supplies they need for patients in their care, and costly to find replacements from other foreign suppliers. The damage done by the embargo is immense, and no sector of Cuba’s economy is immune.

Neither are we. The embargo boomerangs on patients here in the U.S. for whom a raft of medicines and therapies – to reduce cholesterol, treat cancer, and cut down on the needless amputations of limbs for diabetics – are effectively kept out of reach. That’s heartbreaking, too.

We deeply admire President Obama for restoring relations, visiting Cuba, and working so hard to roll back this Cold War policy against Cuba that our country has been stuck with so long.

Yet as he wrote the historic speech he delivered in Havana, in which he called the embargo “an outdated burden on the Cuban people” and “a burden on the Americans who want to work and do business or invest here in Cuba,” didn’t he wonder about the impact of the fines levied by his administration – hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines in February 2016 alone – “for relatively small violations that took place years before,” as Harper’s reported – that would make global businesses and financial institutions afraid of doing business in Cuba?

This is the central theme of the Secretary-General’s report, echoed not just in Cuba’s comments but in those of our allies in the region and elsewhere: Financial enforcement of the U.S. embargo imposes burdens on Cuba’s economy that make it impossible for the country to reach its potential and for its citizens to live full lives. This, in turn, begs the question of whether President Obama can or is willing to do more before he leaves office to remove this core contradiction from U.S. policy.

This is not to cast a blind eye to those problems plaguing Cuba’s economy that are of its own creation. Dr. Ricardo Torres Pérez, a prominent, pro-reform economist in Cuba, identifies in a piece published by American University numerous decisions Cuba can take to get its own house in order. As the Associated Press reported, Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla, Cuba’s Foreign Minister, said in a press conference this week, “No one’s ignoring or aims to hide our problems, our limitations, our mistakes.”

But, Mr. Rodríguez went on to say, “President Obama reserves broad executive authority that he can use up to his last minute in the White House.” He’s right. In a letter organized by the Washington Office on Latin America, an NGO coalition including the Center for Democracy in the Americas offered a list of actions President Obama could take to further his Cuba policy advances, including assuring “the U.S. banking and financial services industry they would not face penalties if they take advantage of legal opportunities in Cuba.”

Rather than continuing the double-game of undermining Cuba’s economy while simultaneously pursuing U.S. diplomacy, there are steps the President can take, even now, before the UN votes next month – to help Cuba’s economy right itself, generating more jobs and opportunities, for the Cuban people and U.S. businesses.

What the hardliners say is fantasy. Our embargo is hurting the Cuban people, and the President should try to reduce their pain before he leaves office.

Ultimately, normalization will not be complete until the U.S. Congress votes to end the embargo. That’s going to take a lot of work and effort extending into the administration of whomever succeeds Mr. Obama as president. Perhaps our elected leaders could turn for inspiration to the Vatican’s section of the Secretary-General’s report, quoting Pope Francis:

“For some months now, we have witnessed an event which fills us with hope: the process of normalizing relations between two peoples following years of estrangement. It is a process, a sign of the victory of the culture of encounter and dialogue, ‘the system of universal growth’ over ‘the forever-dead system of groups and dynasties,’ as José Martí said.”

The Pope went on to say, “I urge political leaders to persevere on this path and to develop all its potentialities as a proof of the high service which they are called to carry out on behalf of the peace and well-being of their peoples, of all America, and as an example of reconciliation for the entire world.”

The vote at the UN will take place on October 26th.

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Cuba and True Patriotism: The Debate on Meeting and Feeding Cubans

September 9, 2016

“The Senator from Wisconsin cannot frighten me by exclaiming, ‘My country, right or wrong.’ In one sense I say so too. My country; and my country is the great American Republic. My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”  Senator Carl Schurz, remarks in the U.S. Senate, February 29, 1872.

Legislation was introduced this week in the U.S. Senate to cut off the regularly scheduled commercial flights to Cuba recently resumed by the Obama administration.

If the bill passes, it would give JetBlue and other commercial carriers a case of the blues. It would also impose a real hardship on Cubans on both sides of the Florida Strait, by making their family reunions much more costly to arrange. Moreover, passage of a law blocking these flights would re-impose limits on our constitutional right to travel, and prevent more Americans from meeting Cubans and learning from them, for reasons justified only by the sponsors’ hatred of Cuba’s government.

The two Senators committed to stopping the flights – Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey – wrap themselves in the false flag of patriotism. They’ve called passage of their legislation essential to avoid “leaving key aspects of our airport security in the hands of the anti-American, repressive regime in Cuba.”

Next week, the House Committee on Agriculture will hold a hearing on trade with Cuba, with special attention to legal and regulatory restrictions that make it harder for farmers in the U.S. to sell nutritious, high-quality food for consumption by the Cuban people at a lower cost.

For nearly forty years, policymakers in the U.S. Congress from both political parties have stood against the use of food as a weapon of national security. Methods like trade embargos and other measures designed to restrict access to food, especially for poor and developing nations, are correctly recognized as instruments of cruelty and potential sources of instability.

Yet the embargo lobby defends restrictions on U.S. farm sales to the island as a check on Cuba’s military and government, and consistent with the national security interests of the United States.

It’s startling to think we have been having this debate over the course of three centuries.

Senator Carl Schurz was an aggressive opponent of what he called American Imperialism. In 1899, he spoke out against plans by the U.S. government to dominate Cuba and the Philippines after our country intervened in what we call the Spanish-American War.

He had no particular love for the people of either country. His concern instead was for the character of the United States. At an address in Chicago, he said, “If we [adopt a colonial system], we shall transform the government of the people, for the people, and by the people, for which Abraham Lincoln lived, into a government of one part of the people, the strong, over another part, the weak.”

So when you hear the opponents of flights to Cuba – and advocates for keeping restrictions on food sales – defend their positions on specious grounds of national security, as if meeting and feeding Cubans posed a distinctive threat to our way of life, remember the words of Carl Schurz.

“I confidently trust that the American people will prove themselves … too wise not to detect the false pride or the dangerous ambitions or the selfish schemes which so often hide themselves under that deceptive cry of mock patriotism: ‘Our country, right or wrong!’ They will not fail to recognize that our dignity, our free institutions and the peace and welfare of this and coming generations of Americans will be secure only as we cling to the watchword of true patriotism: ‘Our country—when right to be kept right; when wrong to be put right.’”

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With JetBlue Flight 387, Cuba Policy Changes Approach Cruising Altitude

September 2, 2016

“It had been so long since an airline in the United States flew a regularly scheduled flight to [Cuba],” the New York Times wrote Wednesday, “the last time it happened, the passengers flew on a propeller plane.”

While passengers who got onto JetBlue’s historic Flight 387 in Ft. Lauderdale buckled their seatbelts aboard an Airbus 320, with jet engines and weight-saving composite materials, what really separated them from travelers on the last regularly scheduled commercial flight in 1961 was more than vast improvements in technology.

They departed Florida and landed in Santa Clara, Cuba in an entirely different era and political context.

Think of it. Florida, a vortex of pro-embargo, anti-travel sentiment, grounded in the Cold War experience of the Cuban-American community, was now the scene of a spectacle heralding the resumption of commercial flights to Cuba.

Passengers, who arrived at their departure gate serenaded by salsa music, witnessed Cuba’s Ambassador to the United States, Jose Cabañas, joining Robin Hayes, CEO of JetBlue, in a ribbon-cutting ceremony celebrating the first flight in 55 years. Among them were Anthony Foxx, the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, and a 53-year-old passenger Dominic Santana, who told NBC News, “I want to get to discover the country where I was born.”

Upon exiting the plane, Secretary Foxx posted a statement on the Transportation Department’s blog, calling the flight an “historic occasion” and announcing the names of eight airlines “that will begin scheduled flights to Havana as early as this fall.” Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes tweeted “Today’s commercial flight from U.S. to Cuba is result of normalizing relations and ending 50 years of failed policy.”

Cuban officials focused less on the moment and more on its potential. At the airport in Ft. Lauderdale, Ambassador Cabañas said in a statement, “Cuba is ready to expand bilateral relations on civil aviation based on mutual respect, professionalism and reciprocity.” Josefina Vidal, the chief diplomat for the U.S. desk at Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, observed, “Regular flights will only reach their potential when the travel ban part of the blockade is lifted.”

The JetBlue flight – and all it represents – helps to bring the days of ending travel restrictions on U.S. residents and lifting the embargo against all forms of two-way trade much closer.

For starters, changes in policy and technology are contributing to a virtuous circle of travel affecting U.S. politics. As Collin Laverty, president of Cuba Educational Travel, told USA Today, “The fact that you can go online and book your flight with JetBlue or Delta that legitimizes the whole process in the eyes of Americans who had been on the fence before.”

As more visitors from the U.S. go to Cuba, that will also increase contacts in places across the island and provide travel-related service income to businesses which have not yet benefitted as Habaneros have from the loosening of restrictions on travel.

Commercial flights are also cheaper than the charter services that have been serving the Cuban market for decades, and this has policy implications, too. By reaching beyond Havana for destinations like Santa Clara, Camagüey, Cienfuegos, and Santiago de Cuba, a broader range of more affordable flights will increase the attractiveness of visiting Cuba for diaspora populations across the United States who have yet to visit their families on the island.

Within the precincts and places where the politically powerful diaspora community lives, we have seen the connection between the rising number of CubanAmerican family visits to the island and the increasing support for President Obama’s policy opening to Cuba.

Which takes us back to the scene at the Ft. Lauderdale airport. Settled in behind the controls of Flight 387 were Captain Mark Luaces and First Officer Francisco Barreras, ABC News reported, the sons of Cuban immigrants. As the plane was pushed back from the gate, it was flanked by men holding the flags of Cuba and the United States – in Florida!

We wondered what the loudest, most vigilant voices among the Florida politicians who oppose the opening to Cuba made of this. When we looked at the Twitter accounts and the websites of Sen. Marco Rubio (FL) and Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-27), Carlos Curbelo (FL-26), and Mario Díaz-Balart (FL-25), we could not find one tweet or press release protesting JetBlue’s flight (although we did learn that Mr. Díaz-Balart is a member of the Contaminated Drywall Caucus).

Not everyone was silent. Senator Robert Menendez (NJ) expressed his convictions to a reporter for NJTV, saying, “all we’re doing [in resuming commercial flights] is enriching the Castro regime at the expense of human rights and democracy.” But the hardliners in the Florida delegation, especially in an election year, could not bring themselves to oppose the profits and jobs that come by opening another airport and another airline to the Cuba market, or gainsay the right of a family, as NBC News reported, to book a flight to Cuba so they could get married and baptize their kids.

That, ultimately, is why the remaining restrictions on legal travel to Cuba cannot survive. Times have changed, as Flight 387 demonstrated so powerfully, and ideology should not stand in the way of families being together.

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Visit Cuba. Talk to Cubans. Work it Out.

August 26, 2016

“Nothing ever becomes real till it is experienced – Even a Proverb is no proverb to you till your Life has illustrated it.” – John Keats

Cuba is not a zoo. It is not a theme park. While Cubans are generous hosts, Cuba should not be considered a place where “the natives welcome Americans with open arms,” no matter what the Cedar Rapids Gazette says [h/t Lou Pérez].

Whether you come to the island for official, research, and commercial purposes, or on a people-to-people license, Cuba is a great place to go: to learn, exchange, make friends, make progress and make bigger plans – so long as you can set the tropes aside, and come with ears to hear.

This week, the news is filled with examples proving that point.

For three decades, Cuba was falsely listed as a State Sponsor of Terror. Among the shifting set of bogus reasons was the empty allegation that Cuba allowed representatives of the FARC, who had been engaged in a civil war against the government of Colombia, to reside in safety on the island. They were there, but not for reasons that could justify Cuba’s stigmatization.

Cuba was finally removed from the terror list a year ago, and it is being rightly celebrated now that Colombia and the FARC have concluded a peace accord, bringing to an end, as USA Today put it, “the longest-running armed conflict in the Western Hemisphere.”

Cuba was instrumental in giving confidence to the FARC to negotiate, as Cynthia Arnson of the Wilson Center said, because it was “the country with the greatest credibility among guerrilla movements in the region.”

Before visiting the island in 2015, Representative Bradley Byrne (AL-1), a national security conservative, criticized President Obama’s decision to remove Cuba from the terror list as “premature.” After visiting the island Rep. Byrne said, “Cuba is not involved with the terrorists we see today which is [sic] mainly among Islamic groups in the Middle East. So, I think the President made the right decision to remove them from the terrorist list.” Only by coming to Cuba with open eyes did the facts come into Mr. Byrne’s view.

This week, as Prensa Latina, reported, “Specialists and officials from Cuba and Germany are…discussing possible areas of cooperation on environmental issues related to the prevention and reduction of the effects of climate change.”

Here, again, there are a constellation of issues that touch on Cuba’s economy, energy security, and the environment we share in common, that can only be resolved through direct contact, negotiation, and collaboration.

Cuba is 95 percent dependent on fossil fuels. As Dr. C. Juan Triana Cordoví observed this week, in an article titled Oil and Our Daily Dependence, while Latin America generates 20 percent of its electricity using renewable sources and globally it is about 12 percent, Cuba is at the stage where renewables meet just 5% of its needs. This is at a moment when fuel consumption is high, Venezuela’s concessionary oil shipments are declining, and Cuba’s economic growth targets can’t be met without more energy.

In the long term, Dr. Triana Cordoví writes, Cuba needs to invest $3.6 billion over 15 years in order to get 24% of its electricity from renewable sources, as its economic plan prescribes. In the meanwhile, it will continue drilling in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico looking for the deposits of commercially-recoverable oil that the U.S. government and Cuba’s investor-partners believe are there.

This, in turn, makes even strong supporters of the new policy opening with Cuba very nervous. As the Tampa Bay Times editorialized earlier this month:

“It is critical that the United States continue to develop relationships with Cuba rather than turn back the clock as Sen. Marco Rubio and other Republican hard-liners prefer. If the United States cannot persuade Cuba to avoid or severely limit oil drilling in the gulf waters … it can at least share technology and expertise to prepare to jointly deal with any spills or rig explosions that would threaten Florida. That requires cooperation, not fighting the opening of a Cuban consulate in Florida or clinging to the outdated economic embargo.”

The idea of coming to Cuba for cooperation is at the heart of what makes the upcoming Cuba Energy and Infrastructure Summit so intriguing. The summit is “aimed at exploring…methods [of] linking foreign investors to the opportunities offered by the Cuban energy sector,” as Cuban state media described it.

Conversations about attracting investment to energy are happening all over the world, and for good reason. As the Nobel Prize Winning economist Michael Spence observed recently, public and private investments in infrastructure, such as those providing energy, are powerful engines of growth with more equitable gains than investments that typically reward those at the top. He says, “a green approach” to building clean energy, and using green finance to do it, will “not only stimulate additional growth; it would also be likely to increase the quality of growth, not to mention the lives of ordinary people.”

Economic powerhouses like China also believe that “the transition to low carbon growth has become an opportunity to spur economic growth.”

Cuba needs energy. To protect the U.S. coastline and our shared ecosystem, the U.S. needs to make our technology available to Cuba as it drills in the Gulf, and allow our companies to play a supporting role as it tries to bring oil onshore to power its economy going forward. We need to build on the cooperation that has been taking place between Cuba and U.S.-based institutions in areas like science and conservation for over a century so that the search for and use of oil, as well as the transition to renewables, takes place as swiftly and safely as possible.

The United Nations Environment Programme and other multilateral institutions should ensure that conferences like the one next week in Havana can move from talking about investment to securing the new and innovative sources of green finance that are being created globally. This could enable Cuba to meet its investment targets and allow Cubans and the nations around them to breathe a little easier when it comes to its energy consumption and environmental commitments.

Direct contact and talking together do make a world of difference. U.S. Senator and Vice Presidential candidate Tim Kaine professed his faith in this idea, when he came out in support of President Obama’s Cuba policy.

“There are still issues between the United States and Cuba, and we should talk and seek an agreement on human-rights, issues, for example,” he said. “But we need to have a relationship with Cuba, like with other nations. Diplomatic relations aren’t a sign that everything’s perfect, but it’s a channel for dialogue, and I’m really glad that the relationship between the United States and Cuba is in a new chapter.”

So are we.

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Our summer reading list and a word about how lies travel

August 19, 2016

This week, we’re engaged in a little internet hocus-pocus.

Despite appearances, the staff behind the Cuba Central News Brief are on the beach, not behind our desks. In advance of our trip, we prepared a list of books and articles for you to relax with and read, while we have a chance to do the same.

There’s an old saying, “A lie can travel halfway around the world, while the truth is still lacing up its shoes.” Often attributed to Mark Twain, though ironically the wisdom spilled from someone else’s pen, we thought of this aphorism while reading a news item about TSA! (Yes. That does show we need to get more “vacay.”)

According to Homeland Security Today, the U.S. and Cuba reached an agreement which will allow federal air marshals on board certain flights to and from Cuba. Specifically, “US air marshals will be deployed on some flights between the US and Cuba when commercial air service between the two countries launches on Aug. 31.”

TSA said in a statement, “In the spirit of enhancing the security of international civil aviation, the United States and The Republic of Cuba entered into an aviation security agreement that sets forth the legal framework for the deployment of US in-flight security officers — more commonly known as federal air marshals — on board certain flights to and from Cuba.”

The air marshal agreement reflects the bilateral Memorandum of Understanding signed in February of this year by the two governments. In it, Cuba and the U.S. jointly committed to observing the international conventions that relate to civil aviation security, and pledged to honor “the security provisions required by the other Country for entry into, for departure from, and while within the territory of that other Country and to take adequate measures to protect aircraft and to inspect passengers, crew, and their baggage and carry-on items, as well as cargo and aircraft stores, prior to and during boarding or loading.”

We know that “LPD,” or Last Point of Departure, security is in place at Cuba’s airports. We also know that measures have been in place for decades to protect the security of travelers on the charter flights that currently provide service between the U.S. and Cuba. These are the flights that took nearly 400,000 Cuban Americans to visit the island for family travel, safely and securely in 2015; flights which in total, from Miami alone, took more than 900,000 passengers, including people to people travelers, back and forth to the island. As Martha Pantin, a spokeswoman for American Airlines, told the Miami Herald, “We wouldn’t fly to a place that we don’t think is safe.”

Neither would you. Neither would Cuba, which is depending on tourist revenue to keep its economy going. As Reuters reported recently: Tourism generated $2.8 billion in revenue for Cuba’s government last year.

Which brings us back to the time it takes the truth to lace up its shoes. Since the spring of this year, opponents of the Obama opening in Congress have been fear-mongering the aviation safety issue. Rep. Billy Long (MO-7), a Member of Congress, wrote in one of his local newspapers, “In a time when foreign fighters and radicalized terrorists are growing in number and ambition, we shouldn’t be rushing to open commercial air travel and new LPD airports with a system that practically welcomes those wishing to do America harm.”

In July, his colleague Rep. John Katko (NY-24) introduced legislation, as Homeland Security Today described it, “to prohibit all scheduled commercial air travel between the United States and Cuba until TSA certifies that Cuban airports have the appropriate security measures in place to keep Americans safe.”

Where was this concern before the announcement of the resumption of commercial airline service, when about 5,000 charter flights a year were going to Cuba and back to the U.S. with hundreds of thousands of Cuban Americans flying to visit Cuba thanks to President Obama’s restoration of family travel? Where was the concern when the faithful traveled to the island to baptize Cubans, when scientists traveled over the Florida Strait to collaborate with Cuban counterparts to protect the U.S. coast from potential oil spills, or when students flew to Cuba for semesters of study?

The upcoming reopening of commercial flights will happen. Protective measures are in place.  So, the hand-waving about airport security can only be understood as the means to scare off Americans, who can legally travel to Cuba, from doing so. Maybe to reduce Cuba’s revenues as they work to spread fear.

As the Canadian scholar Julie Sagebien wrote recently, tactics like these “are starting to feel like a scorched-earth retreat policy. Perhaps Congressional efforts would be better spent thinking about ways to make this new relationship fruitful, peaceful and long lasting.”

You will be hearing from us next week! Read the rest of this entry »

“Fidel es Fidel,” but Cuba’s Absorbed by Its Present and Future

August 12, 2016

For decades, U.S. policy has had an unhealthy fixation on Fidel Castro’s health. Think of the hundreds of assassination attempts. The decision by major news organizations to keep personnel in Havana waiting for “breaking news.” The U.S. national intelligence director’s estimate in December 2006 that his end was drawing nigh. The plan to stage a big party at Florida’s Orange Bowl to celebrate his passing.

Tomorrow, Cuba’s former president celebrates his 90th birthday.

Good thing that President Obama decided to break ranks from this obsession and change the terms of the U.S.-Cuba relationship without waiting for what was called “the biological solution.” Like Richard Nixon’s determination to deal with China while Mao was still in power, the new bilateral relationship will be passed on to successor leaders in Cuba with legitimacy only the Castro brothers could convey.

“Soon I’ll be like all the rest. Everyone’s turn comes,” he said, when he last spoke in public at the 7th Communist Party Congress in April.

In keeping with that somber valedictory spirit, the press is offering a few mostly straightforward reflections – like this one – summarizing the toplines of his record running Cuba:

  • In 1961, he all but eradicated illiteracy with an ambitious rural education campaign.
  • Human Rights Watch (has) sharply criticized Castro’s “highly effective machinery of repression.”
  • Castro was a hero to revolutionary movements and independence struggles worldwide.

More subtly, the Associated Press is using the occasion of his 90th to push off against the present.

“When Fidel Castro turns 90 on Saturday, the man who nationalized the Cuban economy and controlled virtually every aspect of life on the island will celebrate his birthday in a far different country than the one he ruled.”

The great flaw in both the Cuban Democracy Act and the Helms-Burton law is the premise that we must keep U.S. sanctions in place until Fidel and his brother, President Raúl Castro, pass from the scene. What happens if neither brother leaves? What happens if Cuba starts changing while they’re still in power?  The policy is frozen in the amber of its own ineffectiveness.

Yet, change is underway. As the AP reports, “Hundreds of thousands of Cubans are running private businesses, buying and selling their homes and cars, and checking the internet on imported cellphones.”

The Columbia Journalism Review noted recently the barriers to information are starting to fall and the opportunities for expression – within the system, at least – are rising. Cuban news programs and newspapers did provide “full renditions” of President Obama’s speeches and interviews while he was in Cuba. The World Bank and the International Telecommunications Union estimate that upward of 30 percent of Cubans “have at least semi-regular access to the online world, nearly double the percentage of five years ago.” Academics tell us that Cubans are flocking to Facebook and other corners of the online world as WiFi hotspots become available and smartphones proliferate.

Yes, these changes are taking place against the backdrop of high Cuban migration to the U.S., cutbacks in the flow of oil from Venezuela, and continuing economic hardships. While Fidel Castro has passed from power, the expansion of Cubans’ economic liberties could not have taken place without his approval or at least his acquiescence. We know from the reflection he posted after President Obama’s visit, there is much about the state of the U.S.-Cuba relationship that he doesn’t much like. Yet, these things are happening anyway.

As the Obama opening proceeds, most minds are opening here in the U.S., even among figures who once advocated for tougher and tougher sanctions on Cuba, with the goal of overthrowing the system Fidel Castro built. Carlos Gutiérrez, a Cuban-American corporate executive and lobbyist, who served President George W. Bush and helped write a transition plan to replace the regime’s system, now “believes it is time to end the embargo and offer Cubans and Cuban-Americans a new future for the island,” as McClatchy reported this week.

It is a bold stand that has drawn stinging criticism from others in the diaspora who want the architecture of sanctions to remain in place no matter how long the Castros live.

Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart simply says Gutiérrez has sold out. “When it’s an outright case of just literally doing it for the money on an issue that he was a big believer in, I’m sorry – I have zero respect for that.”

But Gutiérrez is moving because he can see past Florida’s ossified politics. He’s been to Cuba. He is advocating for policies that have a better chance of making things better for the next generation of young Cubans, like Ernesto González, a 25-year-old dance producer, who told the AP he sees Cuba “as a trending topic.”

Ernesto is not absorbed by history. “The future lies with the young people,” he said, “and young Cubans are not waiting for things to come to them.”

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