Fidel reacts to Guantanamo – now and what he said a generation ago!

January 30, 2009
Dear Friend:

President Barack Obama’s decision to begin closing the prison at Guantanamo is a first, important step in returning U.S. foreign policy to its basic values and offers a glimpse of how his administration can restore America’s broken image in the world.

For Cuba’s part, former President Fidel Castro and Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque both demanded that the U.S. do more – return the territory to the ownership of the Cuban people.

In an exclusive interview with the CDA, Dr. Peter Bourne, a Fidel Castro biographer and leading advocate for medical cooperation between the United States and Cuba, recounted a conversation he had for the book in which the former Cuban president advocated using Guantanamo as an international medical center.

You can see our interview with Dr. Bourne here.  You can also read his essay on U.S.-Cuba medical cooperation in our recently released “9 Ways” report.

We cover the flap over Guantanamo and much more, this week in Cuba news.

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Fidel Makes Way

January 23, 2009

Dear Friend:

During the time that Cuba celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of its revolution, former president Fidel Castro was absent; he was neither seen in public nor did he release one of his oft-published “Reflections,” where he frequently opines on global events.

Yet, two days after Barack Obama was sworn in as President of the United States, Fidel Castro published a column in which he praised America’s 44th president.  But then the former Cuban president went further, to discuss his own mortality and to say that he had slowed his writings to avoid interfering in the work of Cuba’s government or getting in the way of the decisions that officials must make.

We will have to wait to see if Castro follows through and becomes less involved in governing. However, it’s hard to view the fact of this statement, its timing, and its substance without seeing what one storied Cuba expert called “an olive branch” and a pretty significant olive branch at that.

During decades of U.S. foreign policy, the presence of Fidel Castro has always been an obstacle for policy makers to move toward normal relations with Cuba.  When, in the midst of inauguration week, the former Cuban president publishes a column and says he is not governing and that he is unlikely to see the end of Obama’s first term in office, these statements must be seen as part of Cuba’s on-going signaling that it is ready to engage with the United States, and the new administration should take notice.

How should President Obama respond?  Not like the administration of President George W. Bush.  On December 17, 2007, when President Castro used a previous column to signal his diminishing role in Cuba’s government, the U.S. State Department spokesman responded, “I don’t think, unfortunately, these remarks represent any kind of fundamental change in the views of the Cuban regime.”  They were, of course, wrong.  Within weeks, Fidel Castro had resigned, Raul Castro had been elected president, and a series of reforms had been unveiled in a process that continues to this day.  The U.S. government acknowledged none of this, and nearly a year has been lost.

Instead, we would urge the Obama administration to be respectful, silence is much better than animosity or skepticism, and to continue the tone of its new Secretary of State and its Treasury Secretary-designate, both of whom answered questions about Cuba before the committees that considered their nominations, closing no doors and referring instead to their commitment to review the entire policy.

Independently, and on its own timetable, the administration could do what it promised to do in the campaign, eliminate restrictions on the right of Cuban-Americans to visit their families and to provide them with financial support.  It should signal to Congress a willingness to sign legislation legalizing travel for all Americans.  And it should also take other steps to engage with Cuba – on matters of concern to the neighborhood like law enforcement, migration, and environment protection – where there are easily achieved and meaningful benefits for both countries and an opportunity to start a larger conversation about the consequential issues that must ultimately be resolved to the satisfaction of both Cuba and the United States.

There’s a lot on President Obama’s plate, and he is already demonstrating a determination to do things on his terms and at his own pace.  But in a week when Fidel steps further back and Guantanamo is set to be closed, it is our hope that the new administration will see the opportunities of the moment and act in ways that advance progress and serve our country’s larger interests in Cuba, the region, and the world.

This week in Cuba news…

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Bush to Depart, Obama to Begin writing a new chapter in U.S.-Cuba Relations

January 16, 2009
Dear Friend:

The closing: This is the last news summary we will publish during the presidency of George W. Bush.  While every president since Eisenhower tried and failed to replace Cuba’s government and economic system with models more pleasing to the United States, no one pushed the policy harder or on a more sustained basis than President Bush.  He becomes the tenth president to leave office thwarted by the resilience of Cuba’s government and its absolute unwillingness to succumb to five decades of U.S. pressure, from outright violence to an increasingly unenforceable and ineffective embargo.   As is the case all over the world, the Bush presidency ends with America’s image in tatters both in Cuba and throughout the region.   This unfortunate chapter in U.S.-Cuba relations is finally coming to a close.

The opening: In just a few days, we in the United States will have a new president, and Cuba offers a compelling opportunity for Barack Obama to show the region and the world that the White House and U.S. foreign policy are both under new management.  There is clearly a diplomatic opening offered from the Cuban side – with the region organized to oppose the embargo and Raúl Castro expressing his willingness to talk to the United States – and we see signs that the incoming administration appreciates the significance of the moment.

In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton affirmed that Obama would honor his campaign commitment to repeal restrictions on Cuban-American travel and family support.  But she went further in questions about agricultural trade, cooperation on energy, and Cuba being included on State Department’s State Sponsors of Terrorism List, and responded by saying:

“We anticipate a review of U.S. policy regarding Cuba and look forward to working with members of the Committee and other members of Congress as we move forward to the consideration of appropriate steps to take to help advance U.S. interests and values in the context of relations with Cuba.”

Reasonable men and women of good will can differ with the new administration in its views of Cuba policy.  We believe that the embargo should be ended, that the constitutional right to travel belongs to all Americans, and that our relations with the region could move to an entirely different and more positive course if we ended this policy, an artifact of the Cold War, and we should embrace the world as it is today.

The new administration hasn’t reached this point yet.  In fact, they aren’t even in office yet.  And once they are, there are surely going to be bumps in the road going forward, and we’ll be there to criticize them when they occur.  But recognize this:  there is nothing that we can see in Senator Clinton’s testimony that forecloses U.S. foreign policy moving in this new direction.  That is exactly what a policy review can produce.

There is no shortage of ideas from which the new administration can choose.   In case President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton need to fill out their reading lists, we’re pleased to offer here what CDA and others have written and produced to ensure the new administration is ready to reform this policy on Day One.

Recommended Reading for the Obama Administration:

9 Ways for US to Talk to Cuba and for Cuba to Talk to US, Center for Democracy in the Americas

Memo to President Obama by Julia Sweig and Talking with Castro by William M. LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh. Both are from the January 2009 edition of Cigar Aficionado, which is not available online but can be purchased at newsstands now.

Reach Out to Cuba, William M. LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh

Religious Leaders Letter on Cuba Travel Policy, National Council of Churches, Church World Services and other Christian leaders

Purposeful Travel, American Association of State Colleges and Universities and others

Lifting Restrictions on Travel and Remittances to Cuba: A Case for Unilateral Action, The Cuba Study Group

Reexamining U.S. Cuba Policy, American Farm Bureau Federation, American Society of Travel Agents, Grocery Manufacturers Association, U.S. Chamber of Commerce and others

Charting a New Course on U.S.-Cuba Policy: Seizing a Historic Opportunity, ENCASA/US-CUBA

An Opening with Cuba Can Give Obama Momentum Internationally, Wayne Smith, Center for International Policy

A new era for Cuba: Only normal ties would give the U.S. influence over the island’s future, Phil Peters, Lexington Institute

“The Case for a New Cuba Policy,” Jake Colvin, National Foreign Trade Council

Obama Administration Should Pursue New Approach to Promote Democracy in Cuba, Freedom House

Re-Thinking U.S.-Latin American Relations: A Hemispheric Partnership for a Turbulent World, the Brookings Institute

U.S.-Latin America Relations: A New Direction for a New Reality, Council on Foreign Relations

Now that we’ve brought this week’s opening to a close, it’s our pleasure to introduce this week in Cuba news…

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Cuba, Obama, and the quickening pace of change

January 9, 2009

Dear Friend:

Read the news summary this week and see if you agree with us – the pace of change is accelerating and there is more pressure on the incoming Obama administration to take bold steps on Cuba.

On the diplomatic front, Spain has urged the administration to change U.S. policy – and its attitude – toward Cuba, if it wants to be influential in the process of change on the island.  Visits by Latin American heads of state to Cuba have begun in earnest following the anniversary of Cuba’s revolution.  President Raúl Castro has made new comments on the record talking about negotiations with the United States and spelling out terms for talks from Cuba’s perspective.  The strategy of intensifying pressure from the South on the U.S. to change our policy toward Cuba continues moving forward.

On the issue of U.S. policy reform, the line of organizations calling for a total repeal of the travel ban grew longer this week.  Previously, the Catholic Bishops, key elements of the travel and tourism industry, mainline Protestant denominations, and the Cuba Study Group added their names to the call for repeal of the travel ban.  Now, Freedom House, a human rights group long critical of Cuba, added its name.  The center of gravity of the Cuba debate has shifted significantly – not just since Mr. Obama called for repeal of restrictions on Cuban-Americans in September 2007, but since his election last November.  There is now more room domestically for Obama to go beyond his campaign pledges.

On the issue of reform in Cuba, the government took steps to permit Cuban citizens to build their own homes using private funds.  Support gathered in Cuba for steps the government is taking to reform wages and benefits to emphasize productivity and merit.  Cuba’s government made public more economic statistics showing greater governmental transparency.  This news, along with reports that the Catholic Church is working together with the government to distribute aid, provide additional evidence of change on the island itself.

In response to this, what should President-elect Obama do?  It’s time for the U.S. and Cuba to talk.  On Monday, January 12, we will be releasing our report, “9 Ways for US to Talk to Cuba and for Cuba to Talk to US,” which features dozens of recommendations by experts in a variety of fields for actions the U.S. and Cuba could take together to solve problems and build new relationships of confidence and trust.  Visit our website on Monday, when we’ll make this timely report available for download.

But for now, here’s this week’s news.

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