Holiday head-scratcher … if oil led to cooperation … if you only knew what Cubans were using instead of balloons!

May 27, 2010

Dear Friends:

In the U.S. we’re about to celebrate the Memorial Day holiday.  As we enter the zone of the three-day weekend, we thought we’d open the news summary with this head-scratcher:

The State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs is hosting a day-long meeting with high-level representatives from the Caribbean Community countries, the Dominican Republic, and “non-Caribbean partner nation observers.”

State calls the event “a forum for the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative (CBSI), which will in turn create a framework for partnership and improving security and citizen safety throughout the Caribbean, two core U.S. objectives for the region.  Key goals for this partnership include substantially reducing illicit trafficking, increasing citizen safety, and promoting social justice.”

An event like this should be right in the U.S.-Cuba sweet spot.  But when we asked the State Department this week “Is Cuba invited?” a spokeswoman from the Bureau wrote us back (rather promptly, we should note) and said “No,” and then she listed the attendees who are coming just as they appeared in the press release.

Cuba should have had a seat at the table.

As national security expert Randy Beardsworth wrote about the U.S. and Cuba last year:

Both nations are vulnerable to the scourge of illegal drugs and to global criminal networks…In addition, the U.S. has a strong national interest in countering global financial crimes, especially those that may contribute to terrorist activities.  One could reasonably expect, given these common interests, the U.S. and Cuba would have a robust dialogue in these seemingly neutral, apolitical areas of interest.  But this is not the case, and the lack of functional relationships that would permit dialogue puts our national interests at risk (our emphasis).

From protecting national security to preserving shared resources like the maritime environment in the Gulf of Mexico, the absence of a normal relationship with Cuba imposes profound costs on the United States.

Current U.S. policy – what some people call “conditionality” – requires Cuba to compensate our government with changes in their political system in order to secure meaningful cooperation with us.  Cuba has resolutely refused to play that game for five decades.

What this means is that whenever something really needs to happen, we either set the policy aside (which makes us look dumb) or accept the costs of not engaging with Cuba (which makes us look dumber).

In December of last year, the Obama administration turned down a request from the International Association of Drilling Contractors (IADC), based in Houston, to send a delegation to Cuba.  In the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, now the administration wants them to go, so that IADC can have the kinds of discussions about safe drilling activities it could have had with Cuba before the BP spill occurred.

Why is it better for us to be a step behind events because we’re locked into a policy that hasn’t worked and never will?

It’s a holiday head-scratcher.

This week in Cuba news…

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Come Clean with Cuba on Oil Spill, Castro and Clerics Address Political Prisoners, News about Reforms and Alan Gross

May 21, 2010

Dear Friends:

There’s a lot of important news this week, but we begin with oil upon troubled waters.

According to Brad Johnson, a climate researcher at the Center for American Progress, oil carried by the Loop Current is likely to reach the Florida Strait by Monday, May 24 posing a direct threat to Cuba’s marine environment.

News agencies are reporting that U.S. diplomats in Havana informed the Cuban government just days ago of details on the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and where it is likely to move.

A State Department spokesman said, “It is incumbent upon us to inform all of our neighbors . . . those countries that could be affected by disasters that happen within our territorial waters.”

The United States needs to come completely clean with Cuba – and with all of us – about the size, location, extent, and severity of the disastrous flow of oil and chemical dispersants into the Gulf of Mexico following the explosion at the Deepwater Horizon Rig that took place on April 20th and killed eleven workers.

We know already that figures released by BP concerning the volume of oil pouring into the Gulf since the accident on April 20th woefully underestimate what most experts believe is actually occurring.  In addition to the millions of gallons of oil released, there is now more than 600,000 gallons of chemical dispersants in the Gulf being used to contain the spill.

The extent and boundaries of the oil plume beneath the surface of the Gulf are unknown. The toxic effect of the dispersants being used to control the spill is unknown.  The U.S. is expanding the closures of fisheries in our territory, but questions surrounding this decision are yet to be fully answered.  Is the entire 20% contaminated?  Should Cuba take a similar action?  If so, why?

The U.S. should be communicating all of this to the Cuban government so it can make its own risk assessment and establish its own priorities for the policy actions it should consider taking to protect its people, its climate, its fisheries, and its tourism industry.

As Robert Muse and Jorge R. Piñon wrote recently in a Brookings Institution issue brief, there are international frameworks under which the two countries could and should cooperate to protect their shared interests.

However, there is a larger point at stake.  We shouldn’t have to be talking about how, or whether, or to what extent we should be cooperating with Cuba in the face of this crisis, just as we don’t have to invent or improvise a relationship with Mexico to do so.  But our policy of not talking to Cuba, not having diplomatic relations with Cuba, demanding concessions from Cuba to engage with the U.S. cooperatively has precisely this kind of cost, and produces this kind of outcome.

So let the discussions confirmed by the State Department take place.  Let’s hope they’re comprehensive and fruitful.  Let’s hope the U.S. government discloses more information to the Cubans – and to all of us – about the dangers to which the Gulf has been exposed. But let’s also hope that the bigger lesson of this crisis is learned and acted upon; we don’t have to like the Cuban system to benefit from a normal relationship with the Cuban government, and we shouldn’t allow ideology and domestic political concerns to block the orderly transfer of information about a disaster to a neighbor who shares with us stewardship of a gorgeous but now threatened eco-system.

Read on, and you will learn about a meeting between President Raul Castro and two of Cuba’s most important religious leaders, that could offer hope for a breakthrough on political prisoners with great implications for U.S.-Cuba relations.  We also carry reports on reforms taking place in Cuba’s agriculture and transport sectors.   In our concluding section – Recommended Reading – we link to the Washington Post and its profile today of the family of Alan Gross.

This and much more, this week in the news blast.

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Eighteen Months? Fifty Years? What are we waiting for? A new policy!

May 14, 2010

Dear Friends:

In his closing essay for “9 Ways for US to Talk to Cuba and for Cuba to Talk to US,” Louis A. Pérez, one of the world’s leading scholars of Cuba, wrote the following:

The embargo has assumed a life of its own.  Its very longevity serves as the logic for its continuance, evidence of the utter incapacity of U.S. political leaders to move beyond the policy failures of their own making…That the embargo has not yet accomplished what it set out to do, in exquisite Kafkaesque reasoning, simply means that more time is required.

We recalled these words this week as we read the statement printed below by President Obama’s principal White House advisor for Latin America, Dan Restrepo, who counseled us not to expect the administration to lift the embargo any time soon since we have not seen positive action by Cuba’s government on human rights in the last eighteen months.  If the subject weren’t so serious, we might respond: “I’ll see your eighteen months and raise you fifty years.”

Each administration takes office thinking itself different, better able to change the world than those that came before it, a mindset that springs from the optimism and strength characteristic of the American spirit.  But Lou Pérez has it right – more time is not required.  Placing conditions on Cuba government doesn’t work, hasn’t worked, and is unlikely to ever work, no matter who is president.

Next week, Assistant Secretary of State, Arturo Valenzuela, is scheduled to be in Miami and address a fundraising event to benefit the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF).  The speech is scheduled for the day – May 20th – that opponents of Cuba’s government celebrate the island’s independence (from Spain), a day that candidate Obama used two years ago to announce a new strategy toward Cuba that would begin, if he were elected, with the resumption of Cuban American family travel, a promise he fulfilled.

To its credit, the administration has also liberalized other elements of the failed policy, including inviting more Cuban artists and intellectuals to visit the United States and supporting some face-to-face diplomacy with the Cuban government on matters ranging from migration to direct postal service.  These are meager steps, but they can form a foundation for further progress.  Not waiting for a gesture from Cuba’s government, but building on the real strengths our fellow citizens bring to the table.

We’d like to hear Secretary Valenzuela tell CANF that the administration is going to remove obstacles to travel.

The religious community has called on the President to relax restrictions on their ability to visit the island; it seems only practical and fair that believers not apply on bended knee to the Treasury Department in order to share their faith with their Cuban counterparts.

Scholars and cultural figures, athletes and scientists also have a compelling case. Although it can only be accomplished through legislation, we also strongly believe that tourists have just as many rights to visit the island as any other American.  All of these ideas would represent progress and movement in the right direction.  Cuba policy should be based on American interests and values, not the long unfilled hope that American policy – so flawed for so long – should remain frozen essentially in place waiting for Havana to respond.  The last eighteen months – or fifty years – has certainly taught us that. Read the rest of this entry »

Breaking news and a call to action!

May 12, 2010

Dear Friend:

Great news! The U.S. government has granted a visa to Silvio Rodríguez, a Cuban musical icon and founding member of Cuban Nueva Trova, so that he can perform in the United States.  Rodríguez was persona non-grata in the U.S. for decades and was unable to attend a tribute to folk legend Pete Seeger last summer when his visa was not processed in time.

To its credit, the Obama Administration has been much better about granting visas to artists and intellectuals from Cuba.

Last year, the CDA worked to gain entry for Carlos Varela to the U.S., where he met with musical counterparts, policy-makers and American and Cuban-American fans.  We also got to see Cuban academic Rafael Hernández, who taught at the University of Texas, Omara Portuondo, who became first Cuban national on stage at the Latin Grammys, Cuban meteorologist José Rubiera, who attended a conference on environmental cooperation in New Orleans, and several other Cubans who were allowed to visit the United States for the first time in a decade.  Of course, the Obama administration also helped make it possible for Juanes to host his Paz sin Fronteras (Peace without Borders) concert in Havana.

Our hope is that culture, academia and science will not just be a bridge between the U.S. and Cuba, but a pathway that will lead to more opportunities – for cultural, scientific, medical, academic and environmental cooperation – ultimately leading to everyday Americans and Cubans being allowed to travel back and forth without restrictions.

If you support free travel between the U.S. and Cuba, please help us push HR 4645, the Travel Restriction Reform and Export Enhancement Act, through Congress.

This bill will facilitate food sales to Cuba and end travel restrictions on all Americans to Cuba. A vote could be imminent and Congress needs to hear from us…now is the moment! Please call your Member of Congress and say you would like him or her to support HR 4645. Talking points and resources are available here.  Also, please feel free to contact us with questions.

We congratulate Silvio Rodríguez and look forward to hearing his music en vivo in the U.S. this summer and again in Cuba in the near future!

-The Cuba Central Team

Drilling and spilling in the Gulf, Nueva Trova in the U.S., get your news here; (because you won’t get it from the Martís)!

May 7, 2010

Dear Friends:

As we prepared your news summary this week, this question – “what would be different if we had normal relations with Cuba” – just kept leaping off the page.

If we had normal relations with Cuba –

  • American companies would be drilling for oil and natural gas and not sitting on the sidelines as the Spanish, the Brazilians, and others helped the Cubans explore for resources ninety miles off the Florida coast;
  • The U.S. government would have protocols and contingency plans for cooperating with Cuba if an environmental calamity similar to the one unfolding off Louisiana took place off Cuba;
  • The American taxpayer would not be watching Washington pour millions of dollars down the drain operating Radio and TV Martí, which mock journalistic standards, attract miniscule audiences, get jammed by Cuba’s government, and are suffused with cronyism and corruption, according to a Senate committee;
  • American farmers would be selling more product into the Cuban market without finding the equivalent of trade sanctions imposed by their own government hindering the path to  greater jobs and profits;
  • American tourists would be visiting the island in record numbers – just like their global counterparts – providing direct economic benefits to the Cuban people and more important engaging directly and openly with Cubans, exchanging ideas and enjoying all of what the island has to offer; and,
  • Cultural exchange and other bridges to greater understanding would be commonplace and not subject to bureaucratic denials and delays.

But the Spanish and others are in the Gulf and we’re not.  The protocols for environmental cooperation and environmental mitigation don’t exist.  Powerful political forces keep the wasteful and failed Martí broadcasts on the air.  American politicians are still putting narrow political interests above our economic, agriculture, and constituent interests.  And American tourists can travel to North Korea, Iran, Sudan, Burma, and elsewhere without limits, but are still barred by their own government from visiting Cuba.  We pay these and other costs every day because our political system cannot admit a mistake and engage with Cuba – directly, normally, productively, proudly.  We can – and should – do better.

This week, we cover these issues plus profoundly interesting and important developments in Cuba – more shifts at the government’s highest levels, a new agreement permitting The Ladies in White to march thanks to Cardinal Ortega, accounts of the worst sugar harvest in 100 years, and more.

And we close with a final word about culture.

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