Cuba steps up diplomacy as the 2008 hurricane season comes to an end

November 24, 2008

Dear Friend:

China, Venezuela, and Brazil have at least one thing in common – they believe that their countries have a stake in Cuba’s future. Which begs the question: why don’t we?

This is the striking thing about the news this week. The president of China has just visited Cuba, offered economic aid, and signed agreements that more closely bind the two nation’s economies. President Raúl Castro will soon make his first foreign trip, since his election in February, to Venezuela. Brazil will welcome the Cuban president afterwards with economic aid that will help Cuba reinvest in its infrastructure and energy sectors.

U.S. foreign policy used to think of such developments as “meddling in our region.” The other countries call it “diplomacy.”

They have real interests in the region and so do we. But our policies of not talking to Cuba and confrontation toward governments in places like Venezuela and Bolivia are obstacles to our country realizing those interests.

Think about Cuba and where cooperation could lead. As we report this week, the United States is on track to sell more than half-a-billion dollars in food and agriculture products to Cuba, but we could sell a lot more if we dismantled aspects of the embargo that force up Cuba’s costs and impose licensing and financial impediments on our own producers. Taking this step would put more money in the pockets of American farmers and more food at better prices on Cuban tables.

Another step would be to expand cooperation with Cuba on hurricanes and disaster preparedness. We also report this week that the 2008 hurricane season is finally over. What a relief! The storms cost Cuba more than $9 billion in damage and seven Cuban lives. However in our country, fifty-two Americans died as a result of our storm season. Wouldn’t we benefit from a greater understanding of why our civil defense gets this so wrong, when Cuba gets it so right?

We will return to the subject of cooperation, again and again, in this news summary during the course of this year. For today, our focus is diplomacy. From selling more food, to learning how the Cubans cope with extreme weather, what is needed is diplomacy, and a sign from our government that it recognizes what the leaders of China, Venezuela, and Brazil already see.

Like these countries, we have real interests in working with Cuba. But our diplomacy needs to be modernized so that something as simple as sitting down with Cuban leaders is able to be accomplished. It’s long past time for us to talk to Cuba. We’d find that there’s a lot for us to talk about.

This week, in Cuba news:

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More Storm Damage, More Diplomacy, & More Calls for US to drop the embargo

November 14, 2008

Dear Friend:

We’ve been busy on the Cuba news front this week.

The first thing we talk about is the weather. The island was lashed by Hurricane Paloma. While the storm destroyed more homes and infrastructure, Cuba’s skill at civic preparedness helped affected residents survive their material losses. Surveying the damage, Cuba’s president, Raúl Castro, reminded the Cuban public that with climate change, horrific hurricane seasons were likely to be an on-going fact of life.

Our second subject is reform. The BBC asks “what happened to the reform process?” It has been stalled since the onset of hurricane season. Other press reports discussed a shortage of veterinarians and other technicians on Cuba’s agriculture cooperatives, saying that these human resources has been concentrated in Cuba’s massive state farms which are less productive. For the second time since becoming president, Raúl Castro replaced a member of his cabinet, installing a new minister for Foreign Investment.

Finally, we address diplomacy. There were three more calls this week – from Russia, Brazil, and Amnesty International – for the U.S. government to remove its embargo against Cuba. While the United States continues to be the odd man out, Cuba is newest member of the Rio Group, an organization of Latin American and Caribbean nations. Also, the presidents of Russia and China will be visiting Cuba (and with no preconditions) later this month. Finally, Fidel Castro has released a book “La Paz en Colombia (Peace in Colombia),” about Cuba’s role in efforts to bring the warring sides in Colombia together.

As usual, we close our news blast with a menu of recommendations – for reading, for listening, and for advocacy.

Enjoy – from top to bottom.

This week, in Cuba news:

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Obama’s Historic Opportunity

November 10, 2008

Dear Friend:

President-elect Barack Obama will enter the White House on January 20, 2009 with a historic opportunity to do something that no president has been able to do in nearly fifty years.

He can govern and make policy toward Cuba and Latin America owing no debt of political obligation to the hard-liners in the Cuban-American exile community.

His victory demolished the self-justifying political logic that a candidate could not win Florida or the White House without signing up for the harshest possible policy against Cuba. In fact, he did exactly that.

Freed from this onerous political burden, he can rethink the failed and futile premise of this policy – regime change – and offer a new approach that advances the interests of the United States and the people of Cuba.

During the campaign, Mr. Obama promised to roll back restrictions imposed by President Bush that severely limited the ability of Cuban-American families to visit their relatives on Cuba and provide them financial support.

These rules were put into place to satisfy the hardest edge of the Cuban-American community five months before the 2004 election; those who continued to believe that economic sanctions would finally squeeze the Cuban people so badly, that they would rise up and challenge their government.

Just as Hurricane Katrina laid bare the ineffectiveness of the Bush domestic policy, Hurricanes Gustav and Ike revealed the cruelty and futility of the increasingly tightened sanctions policy.

After these storms walloped the island and devastated Cuban homes and food supplies, Cuban-Americans could do little to help their families. The U.S. embargo prevented the government of Cuba from buying needed supplies to reconstruct housing. And the very leaders who were supposed to be driven from office by our sanctions demonstrated before the storms the effectiveness of their civil defense strategy and then led the Cuban population’s efforts at recovery and relief.

Obviously, these rules are inhumane and unjust and should be repealed at once. But the historic dimensions of the Obama victory should empower him to do more.

He should restore the constitutional right to travel so that every American can enjoy the right that Americans of Cuban descent have to visit Cuba.

He should get the Treasury Department out of the travel business, so that the faith community, the business community, artists and academics, cultural leaders and, yes, tourists, no longer have to apply to a government bureaucracy in the United States of America for permission to travel to Cuba – permission that is routinely denied.

He should remove restrictions on trade so that the American economy and the Cuban economy can enjoy the benefits that freer commerce can bestow – an increase in jobs and living standards, and the opportunity to learn and share ideas about innovation, management, environmental standards, working conditions, and the like.

Most of all, he should engage the government of Cuba in a manner that respects its sovereignty, just as our allies across the world do every day, especially if he believes – as he stressed in the campaign – in the kind of diplomacy that emphasizes negotiation as the means for settling disputes and differences. It is time to talk – without preconditions.

Were he to take these steps, he would lift an emotional burden from the Cuban-American community and give long-needed support to the moderates who have worked so hard and in difficult circumstances to reconcile Cuban families on both sides of the Florida Straits.

Were he to take these decisions, the impact on Cuba would be extraordinary, and he would give all Latin Americans, the leaders and the people, a new reason to engage with the United States.

The benefits of a broader agenda, and a sharp departure from the past, would be significant. However, this is a very ambitious agenda at a difficult time in our national life.

The new president has a financial crisis, two wars, and a great deal more on his plate. A fundamental change in Cuba policy will be hard to accomplish with so many other issues commanding his attention. But this is where the path should lead him after the courage Barack Obama exhibited this year in Miami and after the American people rewarded him so well for the history-making campaign that he ran.

Many of these issues and ideas are encompassed in the news summary that follows.

We cover the election results in Florida; the hopeful and optimistic reactions of the Cuban people; the statements of Latin American leaders urging a change in our policy; the threat of more hurricane damage to the island; the opportunity for increased trade, and more.

After an incredible election, this week in Cuba news:

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UN General Assembly Votes on US Cuba policy; Embargo loses in a landslide

November 4, 2008

Dear Friend:

This week at the United Nations, those of us who care about America’s image in the world were provided a powerful reminder of what has been and an equally powerful warning of what could come.

Six days before the presidential election, the General Assembly voted on our Cuba policy and we lost in landslide, 185-3.

There are countless reasons to oppose the embargo – the cruelty it imposes on the Cuban people, the restrictions it imposes on the constitutional rights of Americans who wish to visit Cuba, the economic impact on the island and here in the United States, and the lost opportunities we see, time after time, day after day, to cooperate with the government of Cuba on problems that matter to us both.

But the cautionary note sounded in New York was about what the embargo does to our national image not only in Latin America but across the world. While our fellow citizens don’t always take the UN seriously, it is long past time to pay attention.

From problems ranging from the global financial crisis to global climate change, the U.S. cannot continue acting as if it can go along. What our allies and adversaries think of us matters enormously. When all of Europe; when the G-7; when Brazil, Russia, India and China; when most of our largest recipients of foreign aid; when countries we helped gain their independence-when these and others all vote against us on a policy that helps no one and hurts so many, it begs the question of why we continue to cling to our position.

That’s what the next U.S. president needs to think about, whoever he may be.

The United States should not be coming back to the United Nations, year after year, losing votes and defending a Cuba policy that has failed us for almost fifty years.

The next US president should break from the past, start listening to the rest of the world, and get to work on measures – like legalizing travel to and trade with Cuba – that will lead to the embargo ending, once and for all.

We’ve just lost the last embargo vote on George Bush watch. Now, the problem belongs to his successor.

This week in Cuba news:

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