“E” is for Embargo, Economic Reform, and Exile

October 28, 2011

Leading the news this week:

Not a big surprise, but as we predicted last week, the United Nations General Assembly voted to condemn the U.S. embargo of Cuba by a whopping 186-2 vote (with abstentions by those three diplomatic powerhouses Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and Palau).

Also this week, Freedom House published the results of a survey it conducted this summer on economic reform in Cuba.  It found a proliferation of self-employed businesses around the island and a big increase in support among Cubans for economic reform, a rise in the expectation that liberalized economic rules can provide better lives for the Cuban people, but deep insecurity among Cubans about where they will find work in the years ahead.

The controversy over Senator Rubio and his family’s departure from Cuba to the United States spilled over into a second week.  Rubio revised his Senate website, rewriting the history of their arrival, without giving an inch on the narrative about his family’s “exile” from Cuba that has driven his rise in Florida and national politics.

Also, we learned that purchases of U.S. food products by Cuba are down 11% over last year, and that the talks between Cuba and the United States over the resumption of mail service – started in 2009! – have still not produced a breakthrough.

The message delivered by these developments is vivid and clear:

The U.S. embargo of Cuba isolates us from the Cuban people and from the rest of the world.  At a moment when Cubans are finding economic spaces to live and lead more prosperous and independent lives, the U.S. is so mired in a Cold War era policy that bets on Cuba’s failure, that our government is unable to support the process of economic change, our country can’t serve as a reliable supplier for low-cost, quality food for the Cuban market, or even deliver the mail directly to Cubans living a mere 90 miles away.  And just as this fifty year old policy is built on a foundation of falsehoods—that economic strangulation and diplomatic isolation will somehow, someday change the Cuban system –at least one supporter of the status quo, well, needs to embellish his own family’s narrative to secure his rise to political power.

This week in Cuba news…

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The UN, the US Embargo, and the 20 Year Rout; 10 Reasons to Oppose the Embargo

October 21, 2011

On Tuesday, the United Nations General Assembly will debate the “Necessity of ending the economic, commercial, and financial embargo imposed by the United States of America against Cuba.”

This will be the twentieth year the General Assembly has considered a resolution condemning the U.S. embargo.  In every previous year, it has been adopted in a rout.

In 2010, a resolution that called upon the U.S. to repeal the embargo was approved by 187-2.   Only Israel voted with us.  Our nation was condemned by our adversaries and abandoned by our other allies with the exception of three Pacific island nations – Palau, Marshall Islands, and Micronesia – and they abstained.  The policy was totally repudiated.

Next week it will happen again.  But even if we suffer a defeat of similar magnitude, the vote is likely to attract scant attention.

The press has grown bored with a story it has covered nineteen times before.  Embargo defenders will dismiss the outcome because they simply scorn the UN as aligned against America.  The Obama administration – which should hang its head for enforcing the policy it inherited with such vigor – will simply move along as if nothing much has happened.  Even the General Assembly will quickly turn to other pressing items such as Cyprus, armed aggression against the Congo, and the peaceful uses of outer space.  If it’s business as usual, the Cuba story will come and go.

But before this moment passes, we think it’s appropriate to stop and remember how this policy started, what it does, and why the U.S. embargo unites the globe against us.

The U.S. embargo contains the most comprehensive set of economic sanctions that we impose on any nation in the world. From the beginning, the goal of the embargo was to make the Cuban people suffer so much more than they could bear that they would tear down a government we viewed as a Cold War security threat.

For five decades, the United States has tightened the screws as hard as it could:  imposing sharp limits on Cuba’s access to American visitors, food and medicines; banning almost all other business activity; using sanctions to stop third countries, including our closest allies, from trading with Cuba; blocking Cuba’s access to high technology goods; even siphoning off some of its most promising thinkers by incentivizing Cubans to emigrate and persuading its highly-trained doctors to defect.

None of this has caused an uprising or broke the back of the Cuban system.  Nor has it ever stopped.  A generation after the Cold War ended, the Soviet Union fell, and the U.S. intelligence community concluded that Cuba posed no threat to U.S. security, the regime of sanctions grinds on as if none of this ever happened.

How can this be?

In 2009, Amnesty International pointed out “There is no formal mechanism within the U.S. government to monitor the impact of the embargo on economic and social rights in Cuba.”

It’s actually worse than that.  In reality, there is no formal process inside the U.S. government for assessing the impact of the embargo on the United States.

We hear few voices in the U.S. Congress, the State Department, or the White House asking the tough questions: Do our sanctions backfire and take away from everyday Cubans the prospect for leading more prosperous and independent lives?  Is the embargo damaging our nation’s standing in Latin America or harming our image across the world?  Do U.S. sanctions cost American workers jobs, American businesses profits, and American citizens their liberties?

Even fewer ask, if the policy has failed to achieve its goals, or if it still causes suffering among everyday Cubans, the presumed beneficiaries, isn’t it time to change course?

We’re not optimistic that the vote next week at the U.N. will prick the consciences of U.S. policy makers or spark a serious reexamination of the embargo.  More’s the pity in our view.

But if we could ask policy makers to do one thing, we’d suggest they read the report of the Secretary-General that compiles statements from member states about the embargo and reports from U.N. agencies about how the embargo affects them.

The most arresting story we found comes from the United Nations Development Program.  In late 2010, the U.S. government blocked a $4,207,904 payment from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS for programs in Cuba.  This action threatened the purchase of life-saving antiretroviral drugs for Cubans with HIV and put other efforts at testing, prevention, and education at risk.  Six months later, after a tough negotiation, the funds were released.  But the story begs the question:  Why do we have an embargo against Cuba that blocks funds to fight AIDS?

One last point: you can read every comment by member nations and find not one sentence uttered in favor of the embargo.  Not even by the United States.  We take our government at its word that even it finds our position indefensible.

***

As ever, we cover the news from Cuba and developments in U.S. policy this week, and conclude with A Final Word:

We asked a retired General, Ronald Reagan’s Agriculture Secretary, an environmentalist, a physician, an actor/human rights advocate, several scholars, and one of Washington’s leading voices on foreign policy to offer their views on the embargo.   They sent us back ten smart and forceful statements that make the case for ending this policy.  We hope you read them all.

This week in Cuba news…

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U.S. and Cuba Failed to Come to Terms on Prisoners

October 14, 2011

Families on both sides of the Florida Straits have been denied homecomings after Cuba and the United States could not come to terms on a deal that would have allowed René González to return to Cuba after more than a decade of captivity and permitted Alan Gross to come home to the United States almost two years after he was detained.

According to multiple news sources, the United States offered to allow Mr. González to return to Cuba immediately, and not serve a court-mandated, three-year probation in the United States in return for the release of Mr. Gross, who was sentenced to fifteen years in prison following his conviction for crimes against the state.

Although the U.S. did indicate that it would address other Cuban grievances – including Cuba’s listing on the State Sponsors of Terrorism list, Cuba sought pardons for some or all of the other Cubans convicted with Mr. González, something the U.S. would not consider.

We have more coverage of this story as well as reports on Cuba’s economic reforms, the latest delay in Cuba’s plans to drill in the Gulf, and a new study on the Cuban diaspora.

This week in Cuba news.

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Will “the Five” become “the Four? People to People Progress. Regime Change Redux SMS-Style

October 7, 2011

The Cuban Five could almost be the Cuban Four, if only the Cold War didn’t get in the way.

This morning, René González, age 55, was released from federal prison after serving thirteen years of a 15-year sentence.  González was part of a spy ring, with four other Cubans, convicted a decade ago for attempting to infiltrate U.S. military installations, watching militant exiles, and reporting back to Cuba on politicians and others whose activities they believed posed a threat to Cuba.   The Cuban Five are venerated on the island as heroes for protecting Cuba against terrorism and paying a fearsome price for having done so.

González received a ten-year sentence for acting as an unregistered agent of Cuba and another five years for conspiring to do so.  Very tough terms for this kind of violation, and he was forced to serve his sentences consecutively.  We’re advised that in other cases, foreign nationals have been sent home or served more than one sentence concurrently.  But in the poisonous atmosphere that reigned in South Florida when the trial and sentencing occurred, as Miami was dealing with the aftermath of the Elián González episode, the book was thrown at them all.

With his sentence concluding, René González’s family, his lawyers, and supporters wanted him to be permitted to return to Cuba rather than being forced to stay in the U.S. on probation where his life might be in danger.  But the U.S. district court has so far refused to modify his probation.  The chief prosecutor in the case, Assistant U.S. Attorney Caroline Heck Miller, opposed the move because she says, “he poses a particular, long-term threat to this country.”

This reasoning is absurd on its face.  Even two prominent hardliners – José Basulto of Brothers to the Rescue and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, hardly supporters of Mr. González to be sure – were still reported in the Miami Herald this morning as opposing efforts to keep Mr. González in this country.

And as Mr. González’s wife, Olga Salanueva, told the Associated Press in Havana, “If they say René is a danger to that society – well, he’s no danger to ours.  So the logical thing is to send him home.”

We agree.  Whether you think Mr. González’s presence in the United States endangers national security, as the government contends, or his return to Cuba would be a long overdue act of mercy and justice, as we believe, the right place for him now is not here but in Cuba.

This shouldn’t be difficult.  One thing we’ve learned over the last ten years is that when the U.S. is determined to send a foreign national away, it finds the legal rationale to make it so.  The only obstacle we can see blocking René González’s return is that he wants to go back to Cuba.   Someone should tell the Department of Justice that the Cold War is over so that he can return home and “the Five” can become “the Four.”

This week in Cuba news…

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