Our questions for Obama’s national security team plus the week’s Cuba news

April 29, 2011

This week, President Obama named CIA Director Leon Panetta to succeed Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense and General David Petraeus to run the Central Intelligence Agency assuming Panetta’s confirmation.

Politico called the selections “a series of safe, no-drama choices to ride out the remainder of his first term.”

As safe as these selections might be, we wonder if the nominees are prepared to respond plainly and truthfully to a couple of questions about Cuba.

We would encourage the Senate Armed Services and Select Intelligence Committees, in charge of the nomination hearings, to ask the following:  “Do you, Director Panetta, or you, Gen. Petraeus, believe that Cuba is a threat to U.S. national security?  If not, would you recommend changes in existing policy toward the Island?”

For years, a growing number of national security experts – including Senator Richard Lugar, former counter-terrorism “czar” Richard Clarke, and General John Adams along with a long list of other generals – have concluded that Cuba poses no such threat.  Lugar’s authoritative report issued by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, quoted here by the National Security Network, said the following:

With the end of the Cold War… the Government of Cuba (GOC) does not represent the security threat to the U.S. that it once did… While Cuba’s alliance with Venezuela has intentions of influencing regional affairs, the GOC has not been positioned to ably export its Revolution since the collapse of the Soviet Union forced an end to Cuba’s financial support for Latin American guerrilla movements… In hindsight, the U.S. embargo has not served a national security agenda since Cuba ceased to be an effective threat to the security of the United States.

Yet, the myth of the Cuban threat forms the basis of laws and programs that have frozen U.S. policy into a confrontational posture toward Cuba for decades.  Cuba’s continued presence on the list of state sponsors of terrorism is but one of several examples.  If the prospective Secretary of Defense and CIA Director were to tell the truth and lay this myth to rest, policy makers could then rebuild the policy from the ground up in ways that would serve genuine U.S. interests and enable true engagement with Cuba’s people to begin.

But the policy won’t change if there is, in fact, something the nominees know that the rest of the national security establishment does not know.  Nor will change be possible if the nominees refuse to respond to these questions with the truth.

We can handle the truth.

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Party Congress in Havana ratifies economic reforms, sees end of Fidel Castro’s tenure; Obama’s (non-tourist) travel regulations finalized, opening doorway to more travel

April 22, 2011

The first meeting of Cuba’s Communist Party Congress since 1997 concluded in Havana this week with several actions that will accelerate the process of modernizing Cuba’s economy while deferring significant changes in the country’s leadership.

Our report on what happened in Havana dominates the news summary this week.

But the regulations released in Washington yesterday – putting into effect the new travel and remittance rules ordered by President Obama – also command our attention. While they do open more opportunities for Americans to travel to Cuba, they also contain caveats and limitations, which will ultimately restrict the amount of engagement the new rules could make possible.

Below you will find a summary of what the Congress did, a review of Cuba’s economic reforms, and links containing pictures, videos, and more detailed reporting on what happened at the 6th meeting of the Cuban Communist Party Congress, and what it might mean both for the future of Cuba and U.S.-Cuba relations.

The rap on what Cuba is doing – from some economic experts, from skeptics about Cuba’s commitment to reform, and from supporters of U.S. sanctions – is that the reform process amounts to nothing more than tinkering around the edges.   Read what we’re reporting this week and see whether you agree.

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Cubans Remember the Bay of Pigs as Party Congress Meets on Economic Reforms

April 15, 2011

This weekend in Havana, Cubans commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs invasion by the United States, choose a new Communist Party leadership, and chart a new direction for the nation’s economy.

This juxtaposition of past and future – a merging of two stories about how Cuba survived and outlasted a military threat in the last century and must now reform its economic model to continue its system in this century – frames the important news we’re reporting.

Cuba’s Communist Party meets in Havana this weekend – with approximately one thousand delegates in attendance – to ratify hundreds of reforms proposed by President Raúl Castro to address Cuba’s economic crisis.

Ratification by the Sixth Party Congress will accelerate changes in benefits, assumptions, and rules that have largely guided Cuba’s economy since 1959.  As experts in Cuba and elsewhere debate whether they are far-reaching enough – or will be implemented fast enough – these reforms have unlocked an impassioned debate and unleashed great feelings of apprehension among Cubans across the island.

Three and a half years ago, on July 26, 2007, then Acting-President Raúl Castro made his first major policy speech as head of the Cuban government.  In his address, Castro dissected the nation’s inability to efficiently produce and distribute milk, and used this example to expose and acknowledge the shortfalls of Cuba’s economic model.  The urgency of these problems increased dramatically after hurricanes battered the island and the global economy convulsed in recession.

The process began with reforms in agriculture, followed by changes in wages, the elimination of caps and the tying of pay to productivity.  Fidel Castro’s economic cabinet was sacked.  A heightened crackdown on corruption took place.  Spaces for entrepreneurship opened, state-run cafeterias were closed, and long-treasured benefits were eliminated.

By the end of 2010, the state announced plans for massive layoffs of state sector employees, the issuance of new licenses for 178 forms of self-employment, and the first meeting of the Communist Party Congress since 1997.  The decision to hold the long-delayed Congress was accompanied by the release of a 32-page document broadly outlining proposed changes to the economic system that were debated in meetings across Cuba.

In early March, President Castro, addressing a joint meeting of his cabinet and the Council of State, insisted that the planned economic changes would “leave nobody behind.”

Over the next four days, the Party will adopt these ideas in an effort to move Cuba forward without sacrificing this aspiration, while many Cubans live more independent lives and seek their livelihoods in the emerging private economy.

As a prelude to the Party Congress, a military parade in Havana’s Revolutionary Square will mark Cuba’s victory in the Bay of Pigs, when it defeated a U.S.-backed invasion by exile forces trained and supported by the CIA.

The Bay of Pigs happened because U.S. government officials in the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations decided that the U.S. simply could not coexist with a communist Cuba, and that Fidel Castro’s government had to be overthrown.

On April 15, 1961, after more than a year of planning, eight B-26 planes carried out airstrikes designed to destroy the Cuban Air Force.  The mission was not successful.  Two days later, an invasion from sea followed and Cuba’s army promptly fought back in battles that killed 118 exiles, four U.S. pilots, and 176 Cuban soldiers, with 1,180 members of Brigade 2506 taken as prisoners on the island.  They remained in captivity until secret negotiations undertaken by the Kennedy Administration led to the exchange of the prisoners for millions in cash and medicines.

It was, in the words of the Miami Herald, one the United States’ biggest strategic blunders.  As an emblem of U.S. policy toward Cuba, it irreparably harmed our country’s reputation in Latin America.  It also froze our country and Cuba into an angry rivalry that has waxed and waned but persisted for more than five decades, along with an untamed thirst among many in Washington for regime change in Havana, no matter the cost.

In fact, Members of the Senate and House paused this week to commemorate the anniversary of the invasion and to commend what they called the bravery of the veterans of Assault Brigade 2506.  Senators Rubio, Menendez, Inhofe, Nelson, McCain and Lieberman introduced Senate Resolution 140 which honors the exiles who joined the invasion and calls on the United States to continue to apply the same “change-inducing pressure” against Cuba’s government that has failed in its objective for more than 50 years.

Is keeping up the pressure really the right historical lesson?

We asked several scholars to think about this anniversary, and want to share what Louis A. Pérez, Jr. of the University of North Carolina and Bill LeoGrande of American University said the Bay of Pigs meant for Cuba and means for us.

Lou Perez:  The Bay of Pigs must be understood as a watershed occasion.  Its political repercussions endured long after military operations ended, and indeed acted to cast the die in which Cuba-U.S. relations subsequently developed.  Everything was different afterwards.  By the end of April 1961 an estimated 100,000 persons were imprisoned or otherwise detained.  Few suspected opponents of the government remained free.  On April 16, Fidel Castro proclaimed the socialist character of the Cuban revolution.  Weeks later, in “words to the intellectuals,” the Cuban leader was categorical: “Within the revolution, everything; outside the revolution, nothing.” About this time, too, plans for the installation of Soviet missiles in Cuba began to take shape.  Only days after the Bay of Pigs, the National Security Council met in the White House and vowed to continue “all kinds of harassment to punish Castro for the humiliation he has brought to our door.”  Thus began decades of sabotage, subversion, and sanctions.

To the extent that the United States contributed to the very conditions it professed to abhor, the Bay of Pigs must be understood as a defining moment, the point at which the call to support a government was transformed into a summons to defend the nation.  The United States unwittingly challenged Cubans on the grounds that the leadership was best prepared to defend: the ideal of a nation, free and sovereign, the defense of which the Cuban leadership could claim a historic mandate to uphold–at whatever cost, and thereby setting in place the very raison d’être of the revolution.  Within the context of Cuban historic sensibilities, U.S. policy not only contributed to Cuban intransigence but, more importantly, it lent credibility to that intransigence; rather than weakening Cuban resolve, it acted to bring out some of the most intransigent tendencies of Cuban leaders in the defense of some of the most exalted notions of Cuban nationality.

Bill LeoGrande:  Fifty years after the Bay of Pigs invasion failed to dislodge Cuba’s revolutionary government, the United States has yet to reconcile itself to coexisting with Cuba on anything approaching normal terms. The explicit aim of U.S. policy is still to change the Cuban regime by overt economic sanctions and semi-covert “democracy promotion” programs. No other country in the world supports this policy or thinks it wise.  As Cuba undertakes major economic restructuring, the United States stands on the sidelines, disengaged and increasingly irrelevant. In 1960, when U.S. Ambassador Philip Bonsal argued for negotiations with Cuba’s brash young revolutionary leaders, Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Mann rejected the idea, declaring, “Our best bet is to wait for a successor regime.” Fifty years later, Washington is still waiting.

After what happens in Havana this weekend, we will probably be waiting for a good while longer.

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


Breaking News: Jury declares Posada “not guilty” on all counts.

April 8, 2011

Moments before we planned to send you our weekly news summary, the astonishing and dispiriting news crossed the wire that Luis Posada Carriles had been acquitted by a federal jury on all charges relating to his illegal entry into the United States in 2005.

If champagne corks are popping in some quarters in Miami, faces are glistening with tears in households from Havana to Montreal.  It is in those cities where many of the victims and survivors of his terrorist activities live, where hopes for America’s justice system, despite decades of bitter experience, continued to be expressed.

The evidence seemed incontrovertible especially against someone so brazen.  He had, after all, confessed to the bombings in Havana that took the life of Fabio Di Celmo, on audio tape.  He had, after all, snuck into the United States and then called a press conference to announce that he arrived.  He had, after all, denied these things to federal agents, with hope of remaining here in America.

We cannot imagine how crushing this news is to Livio Di Celmo whose brother was killed in 1997.  He was outraged that Posada was being prosecuted for perjury and obstruction rather than the violent act that had taken the life of his brother who was, as Posada is heard to say on tapes played in court without a hint of remorse, “in the wrong place at the wrong time.”  Now the Di Celmo family must see Posada – prosecuted only for immigration violations – go free.

Nor can we fully appreciate how this will go down in Cuba, which continues to be labeled by our government as a state sponsor of terrorism.

The verdict puts our country in a terrible position.  As Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archive observed this afternoon, “This is a disaster, for the U.S. legal system, the credibility of the U.S. campaign to fight international terrorism, and for U.S.-Cuban relations. Most of all it is an insult to the families of Posada’s many victims who hoped this trial would afford them a small modicum of justice for the loved ones lost to his acts of terrorism.”

Kornbluh, who has documented evidence against Posada over the last decade, said, “Having presented a comprehensive case that Posada was involved in acts of international terrorism the U.S. government must now exercise the post 9/11 laws it has to deal with situations like these.”

This would be a good step.  We can only hope the Department of Justice is listening.

In other news:

  • The U.S. State Department has just released its annual, global review of human rights for 2010, which includes a thirty-page chapter deploring conditions in Cuba.
  • Paradoxically, the strongly worded report was released as the largest group of political prisoners freed since July 2010 was being welcomed to Spain.
  • Senator John Kerry, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, acted affirmatively and courageously in blocking distribution of $20 million in “democracy promotion” funds, the same program that landed Alan Gross in jail.  Kerry has the good sense to ask whether these programs work.
  • The Cuba Study Group issued a comprehensive report urging a relaxation of U.S. sanctions to enable more credit to flow to Cubans interested in starting small businesses.
  • Jimmy Carter’s visit to Cuba – chronicled in the Carter Center’s report on the trip – continues to reverberate.
  • Bill Clinton praises Cuba’s role in helping Haiti recover from last year’s earthquake.

And, in a final word, we recognize Ambassador Luis Gallegos, Ecuador’s ambassador to the U.S., now persona non grata thanks to the contretemps over WikiLeaks.

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


Carter in Cuba

April 1, 2011

Dear Friends:

Judging from Peter Kornbluh’s account in the The Nation of Jimmy Carter’s press conference in Cuba, the former President was typically plainspoken and able to touch virtually every base during his three-day visit to Cuba.

Carter called on President Raúl Castro to pardon Alan Gross who, he said, was “innocent of any serious threat to the Cuban people.”  He also called for release of the Cuban Five, dropping Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, and mentioned that U.S. and Cuban intelligence were currently cooperating in counter-terrorism efforts against Al Qaeda.

Carter met with Catholic Cardinal Jaime Ortega, Alan Gross, and a group of Cuban dissidents including blogger Yoani Sanchez and human rights advocate Elizardo Sanchez.

Carter called the trade embargo a “serious mistake,” an impediment to Cuban economic reforms, damaging to the well-being of ordinary Cubans, and urged its repeal along with an ending of the travel ban against Americans visiting Cuba.

He spent six hours with President Castro, visited former President Fidel Castro, and noted that there were “confidential matters” he would discuss with President Obama when he returned to the U.S.

We mention all of this – because of what is obvious and what it leaves unsaid and, as of yet unknown.

Human rights were as much on his agenda as reforms to U.S. policy. Carter had extraordinary freedom and access during his trip, which underscores what Cubans often tell the U.S. (even if we don’t listen); namely, treat them with respect and see what can happen.  This lesson goes unheeded in the context of a policy that rarely misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity, but on the subject of Cuba, Carter “got it” as president and still “gets it” now.

Consequently, it made sense for the Cubans to invite President Carter to visit the island, but the timing is hard to figure.  The Cuban government is preparing for an historic meeting of Cuba’s Communist Party Congress, which is expected to ratify the most significant changes to the country’s economic model since the 1959 Revolution.   They could have sent the same message about respect to the U.S. audience that would undoubtedly track the Carter trip in later April or early May, at moments comfortably past the meeting of the Congress.

Why now?

This week, we cover the Carter visit, continuing trial of Luis Posada Carriles, and news about economic reforms, human rights, and the continued clubbing of a renowned rum’s trademark.

Here now is the news…

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