Cuba Policy Update: The Ground is Shifting Beneath our Feet

Dear Friend:

The debate on reforming U.S. Cuba policy continued to gain momentum this week.

The Summit of the Americas concluded with strong statements by leaders in the region that days of Cuba’s exclusion must come to an end.  President Obama, while reaffirming his vision of political reform and human rights, conceded that the embargo had failed.  Secretary of State Clinton in testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee said if the Congress were to pass legislation ending the embargo “the administration will abide by that.”  As Dr. Julia Sweig said this week, the ground of this debate is shifting beneath our feet.

In fact, the policy process is lagging behind public opinion.  As surveys showed this week, President Barack Obama is attracting robust levels of support from the Cuban-American community – not only for his actions repealing limits on Cuban-American travel but also for his job approval ratings.  Another survey of Americans showed huge amounts of support for restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba and for repealing travel restrictions on everyone.

Great additions to the debate were made this week on the op-ed page of the Washington Post and by an intrepid policy activist who made important recommendations for U.S.-Cuba engagement.  When we call Kathleen Kennedy Townsend’s piece on Robert Kennedy’s stand for full travel, and Anya Landau’s Lexington Institute Report on Options for Engagement “recommended reading,” we mean it.

This week in Cuba news…

Summit of the Americas

Speaking at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago last weekend, President Obama said that U.S. policy toward Cuba, including the economic embargo, has failed to achieve its goals, but that U.S. policy wouldn’t change overnight, the Voice of America reported.

“The policy we have had in place for 50 years has not worked the way we wanted it to,” said President Obama. “The Cuban people are not free.”

President Obama also had this to say about Cuban medical diplomacy:

“One thing that I thought was interesting – and I knew this in a more abstract way but it was interesting in very specific terms – hearing from these leaders who when they spoke about Cuba talked very specifically about the thousands of doctors from Cuba that are dispersed all throughout the region, and upon which many of these countries heavily depend. And it’s a reminder for us in the United States that if our only interaction with many of these countries is drug interdiction, if our only interaction is military, then we may not be developing the connections that can, over time, increase our influence and have – have a beneficial effect when we need to try to move policies that are of concern to us forward in the region.”

Obama said that although the policy wouldn’t change “overnight,” he believed that he was taking the first step:

“It is my belief that we’re not going to change that policy overnight, and the steps that we took I think were constructive in sending a signal that we’d like to see a transformation. But I am persuaded that it is important to send a signal that issues of political prisoners, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, democracy – that those continue to be important, that they’re not simply something to be brushed aside. Now, I think that as a starting point, it’s important for us not to think that completely ignoring Cuba is somehow going to change policy, and the fact that you had Raúl Castro say he’s willing to have his government discuss with ours not just issues of lifting the embargo, but issues of human rights, political prisoners, that’s a sign of progress.”

Obama concluded by acknowledging that governments in the hemisphere want the U.S. to go further, but said that “they at least see that we are not dug in into policies that were formulated before I was born.”

Leaders throughout the hemisphere seemed encouraged by the possibility of a new era in U.S. policy toward Cuba.

Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said he believed it would be the last Summit of the Americas without Cuba and hoped that direct dialogue will soon take place between Cuba and the United States, the China View reported.

“If Obama names someone to negotiate with Cuba, as he did to negotiate with Iran, someone with the will to really negotiate, things will evolve,” said Lula.

“From the Patagonia to Mexico, the whole continent favors the entrance of Cuba in this Summit. There is no longer an explanation for Cuba’s exclusion,” he added.

“The Cuban issue comes up all the time,” Grenada Prime Minister Tillman Thomas told Voice of America, “and we see that President Obama has taken some positive steps. And we in CARICOM [the Caribbean Community] are willing to facilitate that dialogue. Change will not happen overnight, but there ought to be dialogue. And changes are to be made on both sides.”

“The very open and conciliatory stance of President Obama and other leaders at the summit has heightened optimism for the full engagement of Cuba in hemispheric affairs in the not too distant future. The Government of Trinidad and Tobago looks forward to the day when Cuba is fully embraced into the folds of the inter-American family,” Trinidad and Tobago’s Prime Minister, Patrick Manning, said in a statement published in the Trinidad and Tobago Express.

The New York Times reported that when asked about the embargo, Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada responded: “If the objective is to see change in Cuba, it’s hard to see how a trade embargo would do anything other than keep the economic system closed.”

According to Julia Sweig, a Cuba expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, the small but significant changes in policy toward Cuba could lead to high expectations for change that the White House may have trouble controlling. “This is starting to feel as if the ground is moving beneath our feet,” she told the New York Times.

You can see additional coverage on the summit by CNN, Associated Press, the New York Times and the Miami Herald. You can read Fidel Castro’s take on the summit in this reflection.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testifies about Cuba

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was asked about Cuba this week when she testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

When asked about the embargo, Clinton responded that “a president cannot lift the embargo. That has to be done by an act of Congress. If the Congress decides that’s in America’s best interest, obviously, the administration will abide by that.”

“But we’re going to proceed very carefully in this process,” Clinton stressed.

“So this is a difficult calculation,” she added. “Our goal is for a free, independent democracy that gives the people of Cuba a chance to have the same opportunities that their sisters and brothers and cousins that they have in our country.”

She also appeared to view Fidel Castro’s clarification of his brother Raúl Castro’s offer to discuss human rights, political prisoners and other issues as a divide between the two.

“You can see there is beginning to be a debate. I mean this is a regime that is ending. It will end at some point,” Clinton added.

You can see excerpts of Secretary Clinton’s testimony on Phil Peters’ Cuban Triangle blog.

Fidel Castro “clarifies” his brother’s statements

Fidel Castro wrote in an essay this week that President Obama had “misinterpreted” his brother Raúl’s remarks about being willing to discuss “everything,” including human rights and political prisoners with the Untied States.

In the new essay titled “Obama and the blockade,” Fidel Castro wrote: “On affirming that Cuba is prepared to discuss any issue with the president of the United States, the president of Cuba stated that he has no fear of approaching any issue whatsoever…that is a demonstration of courage and confidence in the principles of the Revolution.”

Castro also defended the Cuban government charging fees on changing U.S. dollars, something Obama recently criticized. “Every country charges certain sums for hard currency transfers. If they are dollars there is all the more reason to do so, because it is the currency of the state that is blockading us. Not all Cubans have families abroad who send remittances. Redistributing a relatively small part to the benefit of those most in need of food, medicine and other goods is absolutely fair.”

Castro’s essay led some people, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to say there is a divide in the Cuban government, the Agence France-Presse reported.

“Raúl Castro says one thing and Fidel comes out in subsequent days and says the opposite,” said Miriam Leiva, founder of a group of wives and mothers of Cuba dissidents, the Associated Press reported.

However, according to Nelson Valdes, a Cuban-American sociologist at the University of New Mexico, there is no divide and Fidel Castro was clarifying the position Cuba has always held, CBS News reported.

“The United States proposes something. The Cuban government reacts to the proposal and states on what basis it is willing to interact,” Valdes said, stressing that, as always, Cuba insisted that in any talks the sovereignty of both countries be respected.

Polls show support for Cuba policy change among Americans and Cuban-Americans

According to a new poll by Bendixen & Associates, a majority of Cuban Americans support President Barack Obama and favor his plans to improve relations with Cuba, the Miami Herald reported. The survey found that 64 percent of respondents favor Obama’s executive order to eliminate all restrictions on travel and remittances by Cuban Americans to family in Cuba. Only 27 percent said they opposed the change in policy.

The telephone survey of Cuban-Americans in Florida, New Jersey and other states was done on April 15-16, following Obama’s announcement to ease restrictions on Cuban Americans.

“Ten years ago, you wouldn’t have seen anything near these numbers. Now it’s the reality of where the community is,” said Fernand Amandi, a pollster with the firm. “It’s unprecedented to suggest that the community for the first time is aligned with a Democratic president when it comes to Cuba policy.”

Meanwhile, 60 percent of U.S. residents support re-establishing diplomatic ties with Cuba, a new Gallup Poll has found.

It also found that 51 percent favor ending the trade embargo all together and 64 percent strongly favor ending restrictions on travel to the island.

The poll was conducted April 20-21 and has a 3 percentage-point margin of error.

Political Prisoners

As the chances for softening relations between the U.S. and Cuba increase, New Jersey will push for the return of Joanne Chesimard from Cuba, the New Jersey Star Ledger reported.

Attorney General Anne Milgram said this week that normalized relations with Cuba would provide an opportunity for the extradition of the state’s most wanted fugitive, who was found guilty of killing a state trooper in the early 70’s.

Chesimard was a black nationalist leader. A gunbattle during a traffic stop in 1973 resulted in the death of her brother-in-law and a state trooper. She was convicted of murder and sentenced to life, but escaped in 1979 and then surfaced in Cuba years later. According to the Star Ledger, Fidel Castro has called the charges against her “an infamous lie” and others view her as a revolutionary and an activist.

Dissidents held in Cuban jails on charges of cooperating with the United States are not interested in being involved in a prisoner exchange for five Cuban agents imprisoned in the United States, the Associated Press reported.

Raúl Castro has said numerous times that he would send all political prisoners and their families to the United States in exchange for five Cuban agents serving long sentences for spying on dangerous exile groups in South Florida.

“It’s nearly unanimous among the prisoners that they not be exchanged for military men arrested red-handed in espionage activities in the United States,” said Elizardo Sanchez, leader of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and Reconciliation. “They would rather stay in prison.”

Hurricane Cooperation

Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas is on a four-day trip to Cuba where she will exchange information about hurricane preparedness with Cuban officials, the Houston Chronicle reported. Experts hope the visit will contribute to improved U.S.-Cuban relations and highlight one of many strategic areas where the two countries could work together. According to Thomas, Galveston has had a special bond with Cuba since 1900 when Cuban meteorologists tried to warn Galveston authorities about a major storm headed their way.

“I think anytime countries can exchange ideas, particularly now, is a good thing,” she added.

“I would hope to see not simply that we talk and benefit from one another’s experience, but we perhaps even have some system in place where we can contact one another and get advice and help,” said Wayne Smith, a Cuba expert at the Center for International Policy who organized the mayor’s trip.

Economy

The Miami Herald’s Cuban Colada blog reported that President Raúl Castro has appointed Armando Emilio Pérez Betancourt as the new Vice Minister of the Economy and Planning. Pérez is an army coronel and for the last 20 years he has been the executive secretary of the group of Perfeccionamiento Empresarial, which according to the Herald, “applies the techniques learned through Army experience — improved management, accounting, productivity, personnel efficiency, etc. — to civilian enterprises.” Raúl Castro has said that he will begin to apply the model to other sectors of the economy.

Cuba’s central bank announced this week that it is limiting cash withdrawals and deposits by foreign companies and joint ventures in Cuban bank accounts, the Reuters news agency reported. No official explanation was issued for the move, which said that special authorization from bank officials would be required for future transactions. The Nuevo Herald said the change was an attempt to clamp down on illegal financial activities, but local economists told Reuters that the policy was a “response to liquidity problems in the economy.”

According to western diplomats and businessmen interviewed in a separate Reuters article, a liquidity crisis began after three major hurricanes ravaged Cuba last year. According to Reuters, the situation has become “more critical in recent weeks” and state-run banks have said they have little foreign currency for significant withdrawals and international money transfers.  Foreign businessmen said they feared Cuba could be near insolvency, but hoped the government could work its way through it.

According to Reuters, Cuba’s three nickel processing plants have remained open despite low international prices. A national radio newscast said that although “international nickel prices have fallen close to 80 percent,” factories in Moa, Nicaro and other areas of Holguin process continued to produce with “discipline and efficiency.” Earlier this month the government warned that nickel prices were close making it unprofitable to export.

Meanwhile, as five Caribbean countries are reporting double-digit drops in tourist visits due to the global economic crisis, Cuba is one of the only countries in the region yet to experience a decline, the Associated Press reported.

Congressional Black Caucus trip to Cuba

Representative Laura Richardson (D-CA) wrote about her recent trip to Cuba in south Los Angeles’s Daily Breeze.

Richardson wrote that her visit to Cuba “presented an opportunity to dialog face to face with the Cuban government on trade, defense and health after 50 years of a failed embargo, an attempted invasion, assassination attempts and unproductive isolation. None of these destabilizing methodologies resulted in establishing democratic rule.”

She concluded that her visit has led her to believe “that the time is now to push forward in a mutually beneficial course of action. Opening the doors of Cuba to Americans will bring new infusions of interaction and ideas. With this dialog comes the hope and opportunity of a greater understanding between Americans and Cubans and the promotion of our democratic beliefs and their ability to provide equal access to health care and higher education.”

Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill) facing criticism for not meeting with dissidents in Cuba defended his recent trip in an essay published on the Huffington Post.

Rush wrote that he takes a back seat “to no one when it comes to standing up for human rights–anyone’s human rights, and I marvel at how far we’ve come.”

He went on to say that he “enthusiastically” supports Obama’s recent policy changes to ease travel and remittances for Cuban Americans and provide American telecommunications providers to establish service in Cuba, but “believes much more is needed.”

“Far from being ill informed, as some voices on the right have suggested, my views on the inevitable forward march of democracy in Cuba is shared by a diverse, bipartisan array of House and Senate leaders,” he added.

Editorial and Op-ed Roundup

Albor Ruiz of the NY Daily News writes that “the moment is ripe for a historic change. After half a century of hostility and intransigence, there is no more time to waste.”

WHAT IS CLEAR is that the next steps must be scrapping the senseless embargo and taking up Cuban President Raúl Castro’s offer to discuss any and all issues and concerns.

In an editorial titled “Reaching out to Cuba” the Times of Trenton wrote:

President Barack Obama’s decision last week to allow Cuban-Americans to travel and send money to their homeland finally focuses on the problems and possibilities of the communist country.  It’s a long overdue first step.

Meanwhile, the rest of the trade embargo will remain in place. It’s an antiquated mechanism, as out of place in the modern world as one of those huge, ’50s-era Chevrolets still negotiating the narrow streets of Havana.

We do not believe, however, that gradual warming toward Cuba will have “devastating consequences,” as three Democratic lawmakers, including New Jersey Reps. Rob Andrews and Albio Sires, a Cuban native, predicted in a letter to President Obama.

In response to President Obama’s relaxation on Cuban American travel, the Florida Sun Sentinel writes that “we all should be allowed to travel there.”

The new policy announced by the Obama administration makes complete sense on humanitarian grounds.

But I have a question for the president: What happened to the concept of “equal protection of the laws?” If the law is supposed to apply equally to all Americans, why is it that a Cuban-American can now visit Cuba without restrictions, but I, an Irish-English-German-American, cannot?

The United States is supposed to be a freedom loving country. Its political leaders decry the political repression in Cuba, as they should. Yet, at the same time, the U.S. government threatens arrest and imprisonment to keep me from traveling to Cuba.

The Buffalo News editorialized in response to Obama’s policy shift:

Most Americans still will be prohibited from traveling to Cuba and the trade embargo remains in place, even though those policies have accomplished nothing but to increase the misery of everyday Cubans and keep Florida safe for political candidates.

Certainly, it should be clear after nearly five decades that the only job the embargo is doing is protecting U. S. politicians from the anger of anti-Castro Cuban-Americans who can influence voting in Florida. It hasn’t freed any political prisoners, changed Cuban policies or chased Fidel Castro back into the hills. It’s time to treat Cuba the way we do other Communist adversaries.

Recommended Reading:

My Father’s Stand on Cuba,” by Kathleen Kennedy Townsend

Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archive provided the declassified documents for this piece. The documents and op-ed can also be viewed on the NSA website.

Options for Engagement: A Resource Guide for Reforming U.S. Policy Toward Cuba.

Anya Landau French of the Lexington Institute has published this detailed report that examines 14 areas of U.S. policy, from trade, travel, and property claims to Radio Marti and the USAID program. In each area, it explains the policy context, the legal foundations, and options that Congress and the Administration could exercise – big steps and small – if a move toward engagement is in order.

Around the Region:

“Correa to be re-elected in Ecuador”

The New York Times writes that in Ecuador, President Rafael Correa is expected to win an easy re-election on Sunday. Pre-election polls show Correa with a double digit lead over former president and coup leader, Lucio Gutierrez, and Banana magnate, Alvaro Noboa.

“Interpol issues arrest warrant for Manuel Rosales”

Interpol has issued an arrest warrant for Venezuelan opposition leader Manuel Rosales, who fled to Peru after being sought on corruption charges in Venezuela, Agence France-Presse reported.

U.S.-Venezuela relations

Presidents Barack Obama and Hugo Chavez unexpectedly rescued U.S.-Venezuelan relations over the weekend at the Summit of the Americas and now U.S., Venezuela each wait for the other to move toward better relations, the Miami Herald reported.

Until next week,
The Cuba Central Team
www.democracyinamericas.org
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