Silence in Santa Clara; Eyes on Havana; (Still) Waiting in Washington

July 30, 2010

Dear Friends:

After several noisy weeks in succession, silence was the operative word in the news this week coming out of Cuba.

In the four years since he succeeded his brother, Cuba’s president, Raúl Castro has ushered in a new era of plain-spoken oratory.  Short speeches.  No big demonstrations.  Actions over words.  Some in Cuba, fatigued by politics, welcome the new national brevity.  Others complain the government doesn’t say enough to let Cubans know what the next play will look like.

Commentators – in Cuba and abroad – have been left to parse through a shrinking pile of tea leaves in order to analyze for the rest of us what they couldn’t know themselves. At no time has this gap between speculation and reality been wider or more apparent than at the beginning of this week.  After being told that Raúl Castro would address the Cuban nation to commemorate National Rebellion Day, July 26th, to spell out the next chapter in Cuba’s economic reform project, President Castro greeted guests, helped give out awards, and said absolutely nothing in public, about reforming Cuba’s economy or anything else.

His next appearance takes place before Cuba’s National Assembly in the coming days.  Modesty and experience suggest we should all stay tuned.

As Cuba’s parliament assembles, the U.S. Congress prepares to disperse.  But the effort to pass legislation to repeal the travel ban continues to move forward.   Representatives Michael Doyle, Edward Markey, and Jesse Jackson signed on as cosponsors of the Peterson-Moran legislation, to open travel and boost trade to Cuba, in the hours before Congress is scheduled to recess for the summer.  Editorial voices from Kansas to Texas were also raised in favor of the bill.

Not so the President’s voice.  His trumpet remains muffled, at best, despite Cuba’s moves to release political prisoners.  Imagine that; Garbos in both capitals.

Detailed reports about these (quiet) developments, and a final word, this week in Cuba news.

Read the rest of this entry »

Focus on Prisoner Release; More in the Offing? Floridian Breaks Ranks and Supports Freedom to Travel. From Hanoi to Havana?

July 23, 2010

Dear Friends:

This week, we cover news about the recently-freed political dissidents, their complaints and concerns about life in Spain, reports that additional prisoners could soon be freed, and the implications for European and U.S. relations with Cuba in the wake of this breakthrough.

Although it hasn’t quite attracted the attention it deserves, we’re pleased to report that Representative Kathy Castor from Tampa, Florida became the first Member of Congress from her state to cosponsor legislation to abolish the travel ban for all Americans wishing to visit Cuba.  As a Floridian, for her to take this step in the midst of a stormy reelection season took guts.  We salute her for it.  Twenty-six other Members of Florida’s delegation in Congress should be so bold.

It also took courage, fifteen years ago, when President Bill Clinton normalized relations with Vietnam. You remember the story.  Vietnam in the 1990s was still a wound from which millions of Americans had not yet recovered.  A wall in Washington reminded the nation of a conflict that claimed the lives of more than 58,000 U.S. service personnel.  Yet, he determined that reconciliation simply couldn’t take place at a diplomatic distance.  What seemed impossible and so controversial at the time – especially for a president who hadn’t served in the military before running for office – seems decidedly less remarkable today.

Hillary Clinton, our First Lady then and the Secretary of State now, visited Hanoi this week and marked the fifteenth anniversary of our normalization with this former enemy, still a one-party socialist state.  After announcing agreements on climate change, preventing pandemics, education and training, she promised a heightened level of coordination between the United States and Vietnam on trade and investment, and pledged to do more to ameliorate the suffering of Vietnamese still feeling effects from the Agent Orange used by our military as a defoliant during the war.

And then in a public appearance with their Deputy Prime Minister, she chastised Vietnam’s government for arresting people for peaceful dissent, for attacks on religious groups, and curbs on Internet freedom.  Hers were polite but pointed remarks on Vietnamese soil in the context of a normalized relationship.

This is the model for what is possible in the U.S. relationship with Cuba.  We can normalize and recognize, without pulling punches on disagreements relating to human rights, democratization, or anything else.  We might even decide, as we have with Vietnam, to disagree with Cuba’s system without using sanctions, diplomacy, or violence to overturn it.

This is not to say that strong feelings don’t still exist in our country, or in Cuba, about what has transpired between us these last fifty-plus years.  But here, again, Secretary Clinton speaking in Vietnam seems to have gotten it right.

“Thirty-five years ago we ended a war that inflicted terrible suffering on both our nations and still remains in living memory for many of our people,” Clinton said. “Despite that pain, we have dedicated ourselves to the hard work of building peace.”

It just takes guts.

This week in Cuba news… Read the rest of this entry »

For a new Cuba policy – who’s standing in your way and who’s fighting for you?

July 22, 2010

July 22, 2010

Dear friend,

We just returned from Cuba.

This trip offered us a forceful reminder of how important our Cuba work is, and why we need to stand up against the powerful forces here in the U.S. who are blocking the changes we seek.

We arrived in Havana with a delegation of Congressional staff and energy experts at a remarkable moment.

Just hours after Cuba’s Catholic Church and the Cuban government reached an agreement to start releasing 52 political prisoners.

Just after news broke that a drilling rig built by China would be heading to Cuba so that Spain’s oil company, Repsol, could begin exploring for oil in the first months of 2011in an already fragile Gulf of Mexico.

Throughout our stay, we saw tourists from Canada, Western Europe, South America, and South Florida – talking to average Cubans, experiencing Cuban culture, and enjoying the freedom to visit the island.

All of this raises one critical question:  Why can’t we?

Why can’t the United States end its isolation from Cuba and talk openly and respectfully about all the problems that concern both nations?

Why can’t U.S. energy firms join our allies and competitors so that we can help Cuba find energy and protect the environment at the same time?

Why can’t every American visit Cuba legally – just as Cuban Americans can do today – as tourists, as ambassadors for American culture and ideas, or as friends willing and eager to learn from Cubans from every walk of life? Why doesn’t our government trust us enough to do that?

Today, we can’t do these things.   And you know why:

We have too many politicians possessed by a Cold War mentality when it comes to Cuba.

We have a distracted, short attention span system of governance that is better able to address short-term crises than protect our long-term interests.

And we have opponents, with a multi-million dollar political operation and belligerent commitment to keeping the embargo and every other anti-Cuba policy in place, no matter the cost to America’s interests or ideals.

That’s what we’re up against.  And that’s why we need your support.

We believe, like you do, that changing our relationship with Cuba really matters, and that’s why we at CDA work for that change every day.

We lead fact-finding delegations for policy makers to Cuba so they can directly experience the realities of Cuban life and the failures of U.S. policy.

We publish the Cuba Central weekly news summary about developments in Cuba and the U.S.  with information and analysis that can’t be found anywhere else.

We write columns, talk to the government and to the press, distribute pictures, and work in every conceivable way to move the debate on Cuba in the right direction – away from isolation to engagement, away from treating Cubans like enemies toward respecting them as neighbors and friends.

We know you know this is good and important work.  And we cannot do it alone.  We need you and we need your support today.

CDA is a small but effective organization, fighting for what we know is right, against powerful forces of history and an empowered opposition that has blocked progress on this issue for fifty years and which won’t allow change without a fight.

With your help, we will take down the barriers that have existed for more than 50 years so that the question – why can’t we? – becomes a relic of our past, and cooperation, commerce, and friendship can be the hallmarks of the U.S.-Cuban future.

Please support the CDA.


Sarah Stephens

Executive Director
The Center for Democracy in the Americas

P.S.  You’ll find above links to pictures from our recent trip and a column about the prisoner release – examples of our work.  You’ll also find a video featuring a Cuban violinist, recorded on our recent trip, linked above and included below for your viewing pleasure.

Now that Prisoners are being freed, what’s next for U.S. Policy?

July 16, 2010

Dear Friends:

A delegation hosted by the Center for Democracy in the Americas touched down in Havana hours after the news broke that 52 political prisoners would be freed from prison thanks to an agreement reached by Cuba’s government and the Cuban Catholic Church.

At dinner last Thursday evening, a civil society leader said to our delegation: “Fariñas won, Spain won, the church won, and Cuba won.”  Of course, he made no mention of the U.S. since we played no role.

This is the right moment to test the logic of America’s foreign policy toward Cuba.  It has been predicated for decades on “conditionality,” the idea that the U.S. could not loosen the embargo against the island, and should not directly engage Cuba’s government, unless it made gestures in our direction by democratizing or releasing political prisoners.

Now that Cuba has agreed to release every remaining prisoner from the dissident roundup in 2003, the Obama administration and supporters of the embargo face the dilemma so neatly summarized by Dr. Julia Sweig: will they take yes for an answer and reply to the prisoner release with reforms in U.S. policy – such as expanding travel and trade?

Stunningly, a number of diehards hope the answer is no.  This week, Senator Robert Menendez, took note of the prisoner release, and reiterated his commitment to filibuster legislation to end the travel ban.  Even as prisoners covered by the agreement began to enjoy their freedom, the Senator raised doubts that Cuba would fulfill its pledge to release them all.  Along the same lines, the Washington Post said, “Mr. Obama has wisely linked major changes in U.S. sanctions to significant movement toward democracy and freedom by Havana. That condition is still far from met.”

For whom were they speaking?  Not for Guillermo Fariñas, the hunger striker who endured a fast lasting 135 days to compel action for the prisoners, who called the agreement “a victory for all,” and asked for “generosity” toward Cuba’s government.  He went on to say that “the United States should seize the moment to ‘move’ and authorize the travel of American tourists.”  El País quotes Fariñas saying, “The visits of millions of U.S. citizens would without a doubt change this country (Cuba) as it was transformed by the arrival of exiles in 1979.”

Nor were they speaking for Miriam Leiva, an independent journalist in Cuba who endured the imprisonment of her husband, Óscar Espinosa Chepe, who said freeing the prisoners both “resolves a great injustice” and reduces an issue “that has stood in the way of any type of internal or external opening.”

Or for Pablo Pacheco, who received a 20-year sentence in the 2003 crackdown, who said upon arriving with his family in Spain, “I think Raúl can become the man who changes things in Cuba.”

Spain, whose Foreign Minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos joined the leaders of Cuba and the Catholic Church as the agreement was made public, is taking yes for an answer.  Spain will continue to press the membership of the European Union to change its “Common Position” that places “soft sanctions” on economic cooperation with Cuba linked to human rights.

Here, the Obama administration’s dilemma comes into sharper view.

El País is reporting that the Obama administration is tracking the release of prisoners to ensure that all 52 are set free and allowed to stay in Cuba if they wish to do so.  Further, it is willing to “adopt reciprocal measures if the circumstances allow,” but wants to avoid setting expectations of a significant response from Washington.   This is one explanation for the administration’s markedly muted response to the prisoner release.

There is a darker alternative.  Tim Padgett argued in Time Magazine this week that the administration may fail to offer a gesture back to Cuba to avoid taking on another political controversy, thereby passing up the opportunity “to change the dynamic in one of the most intractable problems of U.S. foreign policy.”

But if the United States fails to respond to the prisoner release with concrete actions of its own, where will we be?  Divided from the dissidents and prisoners in whose name we have perpetuated sanctions.

Divided from Europe, which will further open up to Cuba economically and diplomatically.

Divided, as always, from Cuba’s government, which will have called our bluff and demonstrated that our government, like Cuba’s, doesn’t really believe in conditionality, because when Cuba took this significant step and freed the prisoners, we were unmoved or unable or unwilling to respond.

Divided is no place to be.

This week in Cuba news… Read the rest of this entry »

Early Bird Edition of the News Blast: Massive Prisoner Release to Occur in Cuba

July 8, 2010

Dear Friends:

No, it’s not Friday.  We’re publishing early this week, because several of your writers and editors are en route to Cuba with a delegation to examine issues relating to energy and the environment.

What they’re likely to encounter is change in the air, with the announcement by Cuba’s Catholic Church that it has reached an agreement with Cuba’s government that will see 52 political prisoners freed over the next three to four months, including 47 that remained in confinement following the dissident round-up in 2003.

The imprisonment of political dissidents on Cuba has long concerned U.S. policy makers.

But now that Cuba’s government has agreed to the largest release of jailed dissidents in more than a decade, as the Miami Herald reported, the Obama administration had little to say:

“We would view prisoner releases as a positive development, but we are seeking further details to confirm” the church’s announcement, said U.S. State Department spokeswoman Virginia Staab.

Although this is fresh news, and deserves thoughtful comment, we hope the Obama administration will get off the sidelines and applaud this agreement, and by doing so, help create a virtuous circle of activity on Cuba, where actions by the government that we have been asking them to take for decades receive not silence not criticism and not a “time out” to await further details, but real encouragement.

Part of the problem may be an uncertainty among administration officials about the status of U.S. policy toward Cuba, even who is making the decisions about it.  In the aftermath of the recent House Committee vote to end the travel ban, the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs declined to comment on whether the Obama administration would support the legislation, saying “that’s above my pay-grade.”

Six days later, a spokesman for the National Security Council was described by the Washington Post as “non-committal” on the substance of the legislation, saying the White House supported Congress’ “robust” discussion of Cuba policy as an example of the type of democratic freedom that it would like for the Cuban people.  Brilliant.

If the administration is truly at a loss for words, perhaps they could crib from the editorial pages of the Spartanburg Herald Journal which wrote plainly and honestly about the policy this week, saying “What we’ve done for half a century hasn’t worked. It hasn’t improved the lives of Cubans or the lives of Americans, it hasn’t caused an uprising against the Castro regime, and it hasn’t freed political prisoners or created a free press.  Nor has it made any sense,” and then they called for ending the travel ban.

Finally, a day after the prisoner releases were announced, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered a tentatively encouraging comment, describing the releases as “a positive sign,” and stating that the move was “overdue but nevertheless very welcome.”

The larger lesson here, however, is not about the reluctance of the administration to dip its toe into a debate that is happening right before us – right now – and react either to the fast-paced news of a prisoner release or the passage of legislation that has been before the Congress for months (even years).

What we want people to focus on is the hard and necessary work that is done by the Cuban Catholic Church, which has slowly but persistently engaged with Cuba’s government, and pursued its values through negotiation.

Clearly this breakthrough took longer than it should have – surely societies should not jail their citizens for their political views – but this dramatic release vindicates the Church’s approach of talking to Cuba’s government.   Isolation and sanctions have never produced the kind of progress we have seen and should celebrate this week.  Policy makers take note.

Now, on to this week’s Cuba news… Read the rest of this entry »

Historic First Step: House Committee Lifts Ban on Travel to Cuba

July 2, 2010

Dear Friends:

With courage and determination, Rep. Collin Peterson, the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, won passage of legislation to end the travel ban for all Americans to Cuba and to remove key restrictions on U.S. food exports to the island.

Against great odds – a tough political climate, the shower of campaign contributions from supporters of the embargo, intense pressure from Members who serve on other Committees, and cries of “dictatorship” from vested interests against the chairman – Peterson mustered a majority of his Committee to win approval for his bi-partisan legislation that offers a decisive change in U.S. policy toward Cuba.

While Committee action in the House is the first step in a lengthy legislative journey before the bill can become law, it is also a historic step, made all the more so by the leadership of Chairman Peterson, a relative newcomer to the issue.  Peterson and his twenty-four supportive colleagues deserve our thanks.

Sanctions against Cuba have existed for five decades, and by any reasonable measure they have failed in their intent and hurt U.S. interests.  They have denied Americans the freedom to travel, cost our economy thousands of jobs, and harmed our credibility as an advocate of democracy in Cuba and the region, even as Cuba’s government and system have remained in place.  Growing majorities of Americans, growing majorities of Cuban Americans, and voices representing the people of Cuba themselves all want the U.S. government to change our policy.  Cubans want to decide their nation’s future for themselves and want our country to be allied in their effort.

According to press reports, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department declined to say whether the Obama administration would support the legislation.  But silence is not a policy and the status quo does not measure up – either to our nation’s values or the historic moment.  The travel ban should be lifted this year with the administration’s active support. Read the rest of this entry »