Cuba Central Laments the Death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, Joins McGovern and others in urging changes in Cuba policy as the right response

February 26, 2010

Dear Reader:

It is with great sadness that we report the death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, a political prisoner in Cuba, whose passing was the culmination of a hunger strike he started nearly three months ago.

Had his captors released him, as they provided medical paroles for other prisoners in the past, he might still be alive and Cuba’s government would not be accountable for this tragedy.  But the arc of his life and their disregard for it converged to leave us where we are today; lamenting his death and asking for direction on the right way forward.

Sadness is certainly the right emotional reaction.

But then, we part company with those who will reach for reasons to justify their abiding faith in what has failed before.  The Washington Post did that this morning in an editorial on Orlando Zapata’s death.  In keeping with the quality and tone of their general thinking on Latin America,  they referred to U.S. policy makers and foreign leaders as “Castro lovers” for urging a new approach to the policy on Cuba, while eliding the fact that he died with nearly all of the old policy in place and unchanged.

Congressman James P. McGovern, the Co-Chairman of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, said these words on the House Floor which strike us as much closer to the mark:

Zapata Tamayo paid the ultimate sacrifice for his commitment to changing Cuba’s system.  He commands our respect.  No one has starved himself to death in a Cuban prison in over forty years.  Surely the Cuban government could have and should have intervened earlier to prevent this tragedy.  His death is on their conscience.

I have always felt – and continue to believe – that if we are truly going to do a better job of standing with the Cuban people, then we need to be closer to them and in greater numbers.  We need to travel freely to the island to meet and learn from them, and they from us.  I hope that day comes soon so we can tell all the Cuban people that we remember the sacrifice of Orlando Zapata Tamayo.

We could not agree more.

In that spirit, and in this very same week, a forward-looking and bipartisan group of Congress Members introduced legislation to promote U.S. food sales to Cuba and to permit free travel for all Americans to Cuba.

Rather than standing just symbolically with Cubans at a distance, as those who embrace the Cuba embargo and all of its facets continue to ask us to do, these legislators believe — and we agree – that the better, more courageous, and ultimately more effective course is to stand with them literally, in person, in their country, and to put food produced here in America on their kitchen tables across Cuba.  Actions like these would reflect the best of our values and provide precisely the kind of sustenance and support that the Cuban people deserve.

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Migration Talks Resume (but do we mean it?); Cuba counts new voters, guns, and mules; Yoani calls out the U.S. Embargo

February 19, 2010

Dear Reader:

As we publish today, Cuban and American officials are meeting in Havana to resume migration talks between our two countries.

In an important, early step in his administration, President Obama called for direct negotiations with Cuba’s government on migration, regular discussions that had been broken off by President Bush in 2003.   The first such discussions took place last July in New York.

Cuba, for its part, cancelled a following round that was supposed to take place late last year, without explanation, but around the time that U.S. AID’s contractor, Alan Gross, was detained by Cuban authorities for engaging in activities that violated Cuban law.

We are strong supporters of these talks – and other forms of engagement – because they advance U.S. and Cuban interests, recognize Cuba’s sovereignty, and return diplomacy to its proper place in the two countries’ relationship.

These talks can also be a place to air other issues unrelated to migration; it is our hope that Cuba and the United States can talk about the case of Mr. Gross and that he can soon be reunited with his family in the United States.

As the negotiations begin, however, we wonder whether the Cuban foreign ministry took note of the article which caught our eyes in the New York Times this week (thank you, Helene Cooper) which seemed to suggest a “defining-diplomacy-down” approach to negotiations inside the administration.

During Mr. Obama’s presidential campaign – primary and general – he promised a return to diplomacy and engagement especially with those governments with which we are at odds in order to make practical progress on issues that divided us.

The article suggests that the administration may have downsized its ambitions and now sees reaching out more as a means of inoculating itself against charges that it won’t deal with adversaries diplomatically – that it’s just P.R.

We hope that’s not the case, because there’s more to be done, much more progress to be made – with Cuba, with Latin America, and with the world.

And if the administration is looking for clues that this is the case, it needs to look no further than a recent interview with Cuba’s dissident/blogger, Yoani Sanchez, in which she calls the U.S. embargo a blunder and says what pro-embargo forces always deny; namely, that U.S. policy strengthens Cuba’s government and hurts the Cuban people.

We should repeal it.

Elsewhere in the news summary, you will see that Cuba is counting new voters on its roles, counting guns legally owned by farmers and former members of the military, even counting its mules in the countryside (please raise your hoof, one wag wrote).

It’s all here and more; this week in the news summary:

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Lincoln Retires; Rubio Roils; Farm Sales Reduced; Dissidents Released

February 12, 2010

Dear Reader:

The ruthlessly efficient political economy of our nation’s pro-embargo Cuba policy was on full display this week.

Item: Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart, whose major legislative achievement is a law that places much of the President’s power to make foreign policy toward Cuba in the hands of Congress, announced this week that he will retire once he completes his ninth term in office.

Item: Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart, apparently tearing a page from Emily Litella’s book on politics, announced he’d stop representing his own Congressional district and run for election to the Congress in his brother’s district, with no apparent concern that he was leaving his own constituents or that his brother’s might harbor any doubts about voting for him.

Item: The Wall Street Journal and other news agencies broke a story this week that U.S. Senator Bob Menendez wrote Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke urging him to approve the sale of a bank in New Jersey whose officers made tens of thousands of dollars of campaign contributions to Menendez and other allies of the pro-embargo cause.

Item: Marco Rubio running for Senate in Florida raised over $800,000 in campaign cash in the last two weeks to fuel his conservative challenge against Governor Charlie Crist for the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Cuba sanctions supporter Mel Martínez.   He has also won endorsements from Senator Jim DeMint and Congressman Mike Pence.

Item: That same Congressman, Mike Pence (a possible Indiana Senate Candidate), both Diaz-Balarts, Todd Tiahrt (running for Senate in Kansas), and four other House Republicans sent a letter to President Obama urging him to cut off the bilateral talks on migration with Cuba scheduled for February 19th.   The letter was sent only two days after the Director for National Intelligence, Dennis Blair, informed Congress that the only national security threat he could see emanating from Cuba was the potential of a migration crisis.

Item: U.S. AID contractor Alan Gross remains locked up in a Cuban prison.  We call on Cuban authorities to release him.   Gross was picked up in Havana for distributing communications equipment to Cubans, a violation of a decade-old Cuban law.  He was hired under a U.S. AID “regime change” program that the embargo lobby previously used to buy Nintendo Games and Godiva chocolates.  This plainly ineffective program remains on the books, even under the Obama administration, because the pro-embargo camp won’t let go of it.

This is how the system works.  A Congressman retires and his brother replaces him.  Campaign contributions come in; letters to influence bank regulators in the midst of a financial crisis go out. The Cuba issue lubricates cash contributions, candidacies, and counter-productive policies not just in Florida, but Indiana and Kansas and across the country.  Policies that harm the national interest; policies that potentially expose the United States to a migration crisis; policies that kill profits and jobs; policies that put the liberties of American citizens at risk.

Last year, we devoted substantial space to a report by Public Campaign that detailed the ten million dollars of political donations made by the network of political donors since 2004 who work every day to freeze U.S.-Cuba policy in place.

At that time, the director of the U.S.-Cuba PAC, Mauricio Claver-Carone, offered this statement in rebuttal.  “I will not apologize for the Cuban-American community practicing its constitutional, democratic right to support candidates who believe in freedom and democracy for the Cuban people over business and tourism interests.”

That’s completely fair.  No apologies are needed or should be offered for the exercise of anyone’s constitutional rights.

But this is the problem:  one lobby’s tireless devotion to its own constitutional rights has resulted in the twisting of U.S. public policy toward Cuba for five decades in ways that are plainly harmful to the national interest, and its self-reinforcing political power has taken on a remarkable degree of conceit.

This week in Cuba news….

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52 years of Revolution, 48 years of Embargo

February 5, 2010
Dear Reader:

This week, we celebrated a truly baleful birthday.  February 3rd marked the 48th anniversary of President Kennedy’s imposition of the embargo against Cuba. It seems strange and rather sad that the Obama administration still thinks the embargo and the policies alongside it – including the ‘regime change’ programs funded by the U.S. Department of State – are ever going to produce results.

And yet, the policy grinds on, with very little variation, and no apparent room for imagination.

The President asked Congress this week for twenty million dollars to fund regime change programs in Cuba.

He kept North Korea off the U.S. State Sponsors of Terrorism List, and left Cuba on it, even as the intelligence community estimate on Cuba released this week never mentions Cuba financing, supporting or taking part in any terrorism-related activities or of any threat the country poses to the U.S.

Travel restrictions and export impediments remain on American citizens and American agriculture, even as the administration seeks to produce jobs and double exports, keeping wholesome, high quality American and reasonably priced food off of Cuban tables, and equally wholesome and high quality American visitors off of Cuban streets.

The administration puts an open Internet at the front of its foreign policy even as U.S. providers cut Cubans off from accessing instant messaging and open source software from American websites.

The list goes on.  And yet, we know that we can do better.

Our policy in neighboring Haiti is forceful and generous.  The U.S. Treasury Department today is calling for the international community to provide Haiti with debt relief.  U.S. policy makers are searching for ways to “get it right” in the hemisphere. The House Agriculture Committee is poised to examine changes in regulations and policy that could free up the Cuban market for our farmers and make Cuba a better customer.

The administration’s long shake down cruise should be over.  It’s been more than a year.  It has the personnel in place.   The economy has been pulled back from the abyss.  What is needed now is some very clear thinking about Cuba, and how our policy toward the island, if it were made coherent and consistent with American values, could benefit not just the Cuban people but the American people and our nation’s role in the region and the world.

Think about it, as you read the news summary that follows…

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