Before the Deluge, Zero for 19, News for Judy Gross

October 29, 2010

For nearly two years, President Barack Obama had an opportunity to work with a reasonably friendly Congress on issues of importance relating to Cuba and, more broadly, to Latin America.

Obama, who, as presidential candidate, offered at times to sit down with President Raúl Castro, has made more modest modifications to the policy since taking office.   Because of Obama, Cuban Americans now have the unrestricted right to visit Cuba as often as they wish and to provide unlimited financial support to their kin on the island.  They are doing so with gusto.

Diplomatic contacts with Cuba’s government are better and more frequent than during the Bush administration; migration talks have resumed, direct mail service has been discussed, diplomatic pull-asides take place on subjects ranging from cooperation in Haiti to the fate of jailed USAID contractor Alan Gross.   The tempo and frequency of cultural exchanges are up, visas are up, and cooperation has taken place on matters like the BP oil spill. All of this is to the good.

Writing just four days from a national election, it is still hard not to think that President Obama may have missed his moment – missed his opportunity to transform this relationship in a meaningful way.

While the Cubans decry linkage, Obama observes it.  As we have discussed before, he has tied loosening the restrictiveness of the policy to Cuba making progress on political and economic reform.  He remained silent as two House Committees worked hard to repeal the ban on travel to Cuba and boost food sales to the island. And, he reacts to the release of more than forty political prisoners, sweeping state layoffs, and affirmative steps to increase economic activity in Cuba’s private sector with a skeptical glance.

Count him unpersuaded.  He is unwilling, apparently, at this stage to move forward to loosen travel rules – under the authority delegated to him by Congress – as administration sources promised he would do.  Why?  He says he hasn’t seen the full effects of what Cuba is undertaking.

Maybe he will see the full effects of the reforms after Election Day.  What he will almost certainly see, however, is a dramatic change in the balance of political power in the U.S. Congress.

Josh Rogin, writing on-line for Foreign Policy, profiles ten Members of the House and Senate who he believes will speak with louder, more influential voices in the 112th Congress on matters relating to defense, foreign policy, foreign aid, and U.S. relations with regions like Latin America and countries like Cuba.

To put it kindly, they are skeptics – skeptics of nuclear arms control, immigration reform, funding for the United Nations, development assistance, and, of course, engaging with Cuba or allowing more Americans to travel there.

Rogin says Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who is poised to take over as chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee if her party wins control of the House, is “likely to scuttle the drive to ease sanctions and travel restrictions on Cuba,” although she will presumably not interrupt her own constituents’ plans to visit their families or to invest in their small enterprises.

Rep. Ros-Lehtinen and her allies on the Appropriations Committee will be able to do far more than that, if they want to bar spending for other Cuba reforms, undertaken by the Executive Branch, and we can’t predict the administration’s willingness to challenge their ability to do so.

The President can be the vital center of action in our system, and we hope he chooses to occupy that space in addressing the unfinished business of Cuba policy reform.  He’s made progress, but he hasn’t really made Cuba policy a priority in the first half of his term.  If the crowds in Congress are marching in the wrong direction, we’re eager to see him go the other way.  It will make not just for a good contrast, but a much better policy, very much in America’s national interest.

Before the deluge in the U.S. midterms, there was a pounding on the floor of the U.N. General Assembly, as the U.S. embargo won global condemnation for the 19th year in a row.  News of that pounding and news for the family of Alan Gross headline this edition of your weekly news summary. Read the rest of this entry »

Oh, the U.S. doesn’t like embargos? Cuba Releases More Prisoners, More Reforms. Obama’s reaction? Not good enough.

October 22, 2010

On October 19, 1960 President Eisenhower put in place an embargo against Cuba that has lasted to this day.  Fifty years later, the Obama administration is enforcing these sanctions in some high profile areas with greater vigor than even the Bush administration.

Now we’re learning that while the United States likes to impose embargos, it doesn’t really like being subject to them.  So it’s worth spending a moment considering what happens when the sanctions shoe is on the other foot.

China is in a trade tiff with the United States.  China is accused of subsidizing its exports of green technology into our market.  Such actions are at variance with its membership in the World Trade Organization, and now the U.S. Trade Representative is investigating the complaints.

China is retaliating against the U.S.T.R.’s scrutiny.  Despite its denials, it is beginning to impose what experts are calling an “embargo” on shipments of “rare earths” to the United States and elsewhere.  Rare earths – not the 60s-era soul band out of Detroit – are critical materials used to manufacture items as diverse as cellphones, wind turbines, guided missiles and pharmaceuticals.

While rare earths are actually abundant, China monopolizes the mining of them.  An embargo of rare earth exports would violate international trade law, and a decision to withhold them internationally would shut down the world economy.

Consequently, China’s rare earth retribution is stirring an extremely uneasy reaction.  The Defense Department is studying the national security risks of dependence on China. Congress is considering loan guarantees to jump-start the mining of rare earth here in the U.S.

U.S. Representative Mike Coffman says “The administration needs to join with other countries and have a united front to tell China this is not appropriate.”  He calls the embargo, “extremely disturbing” and is urging President Obama to ensure our national security interests are not beholden to the Chinese.  Paul Krugman in the New York Times goes a step further calling China “a rogue economic superpower, unwilling to play by the rules.”

Strong stuff, indeed, and not a single U.S. policy maker, expert, or industrialist has called on the Obama administration to capitulate or to give China exactly what it’s asking for despite the risks to our economy posed by its rare earth embargo. They’d be run out of town if they did.

Investigations, hot rhetoric, and government programs to circumvent the effects of an embargo – understandable reactions as China, the third largest economy in the world, tries pushing around the world’s largest economy in an effort to obtain trade concessions from us.

This brings us to Cuba, the world’s 66th-largest economy, subject to a U.S. embargo for five decades; an embargo covering not just rare earth but everything with limited exceptions for food and medicine.

The purpose of the U.S. embargo against Cuba is every bit as clear as China’s rare earth embargo against us; as President Obama restated this week, the goal is to bend Cuba to the will of the United States, until it reforms its economy and political system to our satisfaction.  But Cuba, like its neighbor to the North, is unwilling to capitulate and undermine its sovereignty.  So, the U.S. embargo continues.

Next week, as it has for the last eighteen years, the U.N. General Assembly will consider a resolution condemning the U.S. embargo against Cuba.

In 2009, 187 countries voted for the resolution.  Just three voted against it: Palau, Israel (itself subject to embargos and boycotts since 1948), and the United States, which is now smarting from the shortage of rare earth.

If past is prologue, this year’s resolution will pass the General Assembly overwhelmingly, and the Obama administration – which promised to move beyond unilateralism in foreign policy – will essentially be left again standing alone.

This next U.S. vote to preserve our failed Cuba embargo will send a disturbingly familiar signal to the world community.  One can only imagine the message received in Beijing.

Now, on to this week in Cuba news…

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If it’s Friday, this must be the Cuba Central News Blast!

October 15, 2010

This week we’re reporting on the embargo, economic reform, more prisoner releases, and a new plea for justice in the case of the Cuban Five.

In the days before the U.N. General Assembly vote on a resolution to condemn the U.S. embargo, Cuba is continuing its factual assault on the status quo with new information about the costs of sanctions to Cuba’s economy.

In the weeks before the November election, at least one candidate is campaigning for office in the U.S. on a platform that hopes to spark expanded trade with the island.

In the aftermath of the agreement on releasing dissidents from Cuban jails, the government added three more prisoners to the list of those who’ll be released and also told the family of the late Orlando Zapata Tamayo and five other dissidents they could emigrate from Cuba to the United States.

In keeping with its conscientious activism for human rights, Amnesty International is asking the U.S. Department of Justice to review the cases and convictions of the Cuban Five.

In Cuba Central’s finest tradition of bringing you updates and analysis of events and developments that matter – in Cuba and in U.S.-Cuba relations – we offer you this week in Cuba news… Read the rest of this entry »

On LASA, Lame Ducks, Empty Hands, and more

October 8, 2010

Dear Friends:

A warm and friendly “shout out” to the scholars and friends visiting Toronto, Canada for the annual meeting of the Latin American Studies Association (LASA).

LASA has 6,000 members, forty-five percent of whom reside outside the U.S., and calls itself the “largest professional Association in the world for individuals and institutions engaged in the study of Latin America.”

LASA used to meet in the United States.  During the Bush administration, however, U.S. policy made it so difficult for LASA members who hailed from Cuba to attend the meetings that the organization simply stopped coming to the U.S. for its most important and inclusive conference.

Several of the papers that will be presented today explore the core dilemma of U.S. policy toward Cuba and Latin America more broadly.  Why does a presidency that has the capacity to break from tradition and engage more creatively and responsively toward the region represent instead such continuity with the Bush administration and others that preceded it?

Yes, the President remains more popular in Latin America than he is in several regions of the United States.  It is also the case, as administration officials so often explain, that the “tone” of U.S. policy has changed…somewhat.  But, the substance reflects not change but more of the same.

Trade, immigration, counter-narcotics, and security policies, as well as relations with progressive governments in the hemisphere, are on a pretty consistent arc when you consider the policies this administration inherited from the last.

After making incremental changes in Cuba policy last year, progress has fairly ground to a halt.  Looking at the big picture, the Cuba embargo generally and the travel ban specifically remain in place.  The U.S., which makes liberalization of its policy toward Cuba contingent on political and economic reforms, remains frozen in the face of prisoner releases and a significant restructuring of state payrolls and the private economy.  Speculation about the U.S. administration opening categories of travel – talk encouraged by “spokesmen” and other anonymous sources this summer – is now officially tamped down.  Major irritants in relations between our countries remain firmly in place.

The U.S. demands freedom for Alan Gross, the USAID contractor jailed without charge in Cuba nearly a year after he was picked up for implementing the U.S. regime change program (we too would like to see Mr. Gross released on humanitarian grounds), but our government belittles Cuba for wanting justice for its Cuban Five and the victims of the Cuban airliner blown from the skies in 1976, in the notorious act of terrorism orchestrated by Luis Posada Carriles, who remains free in Miami, Florida.

Where you stand on these matters depends a lot on where you sit.  We would like to see something more substantial than a change in tone; we would like to see a change in policy – expanded travel, trade, and direct diplomacy with Cuba; a vindication of the president’s promise to move forward with a new sense of partnership toward every nation in the hemisphere; and real support for the democratic choices made by the people of the region.

Nothing would make us happier than giving the members of LASA a chance to study and discuss such a new direction in U.S. policy at a conference convened at a future date in a welcoming location in the United States.

Until then, you can study our reports on lame ducks, empty hands, and much more….this week, in Cuba news.

Read the rest of this entry »

Travel Ban Vote Delayed, Cuba Moving on Without U.S.

October 1, 2010

As we reported earlier this week, Congress postponed consideration of legislation to lift the ban on travel by all Americans to Cuba.  Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who has fought for decades to restore the rights of Americans to visit Cuba, delayed action on the proposal after Congressional leaders decided to recess the House earlier than expected in advance of November’s elections.

In the run-up to Berman’s decision, an active coalition that included retired military officers, human rights advocates, national groups representing farmers and business interests, foreign policy experts, and non-governmental organizations urged action on the measure (which eliminated restrictions on travel to Cuba and agriculture sales to the island).  Their efforts were bolstered by diverse expressions of editorial support by newspapers including this one in Florida and nationally.

In the end, however, Cuba policy once again took a backseat to politics.  Decision makers who know better – or who ought to – remain captive to the tyranny of the political calendar and the lure of easy money and immune to even the best reasoned arguments.  So, delay, or is it denial, remained the order of the day.

While the can gets kicked down the road in Washington, Cuba – with its own challenges, its rights and wrongs – is continuing to move forward, always marching to its own drummer, but often in curious or surprising ways.

Over the next month, we will hear the annual drumbeat of anti-embargo sentiment that will culminate later in October in another vote by the U.N. General Assembly condemning our half-century old set of sanctions against the island.  Our president, himself younger than the policy, has nonetheless embraced the useless dinosaur with passion and vigor.  So he will get his share of criticism for enforcing sanctions he once so sensibly opposed, and for maintaining such a studied silence in the face of reforms and political changes in Cuba that rhetorically, at least, he has more recently hoped would take place.

Meanwhile on the island, Cuba carries on – releasing political dissidents from jail, following through on layoffs with gradual market reforms so its small private economy can absorb the unemployed, working to find oil in the Gulf of Mexico, searching for a set of economic and social arrangements to extend its revolution in the 21st Century, and watching the tired comedy of American politics with a weariness (or is it indifference?) of its own.

It shouldn’t be this hard for Washington to get this right.  And the challenges don’t only spring from Cuba.

In Venezuela, balloting for the National Assembly took place in a country often condemned by Washington as “undemocratic.”  As happens when the facts and theory are at odds, the fact that Venezuela’s opposition captured more than a third of the legislative seats and won, quite possibly, a majority of the votes cast by the country, escaped much notice in Washington.

At the end of the week, however, when police in Quito staged an uprising against Ecuador’s president Rafael Correa, who was forced to take refuge in a hospital before loyal military units broke him out, the State Department did speak sensibly – out loud – against what appeared to be a coup.  Still, it was hard to edge from memory Washington’s accommodation to the Honduran military when it seized President Mel Zelaya from his bedroom, dumping its constitutional order, and sending that democratically elected president into exile where he remains.  Memories linger.

The United States has an abiding set of interests in Cuba and in Latin America more broadly.  The region itself has complex issues ranging from income inequality to the stresses faced by all political institutions.  If we don’t take these interests and issues more seriously – and with greater consistency – the gap between our ideals and aspirations on one hand and the arc of the region on the other will simply continue to widen and expand.

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