Cuba debated in Florida primary; Inquiry seeks to stop people-to-people travel; Brazil’s president to visit Cuba next week

January 27, 2012

As we predicted last week and wrote about in the Huffington Post, the primary campaign in Florida has turned into a Cuba policy pander-fest.

Three of the four candidates campaigning for the Republican nomination to be president promised to overthrow the Cuban government, returning U.S. policy toward Cuba and the region to the Cold War footing that existed in the 1960s.

Legislators in the U.S. Congress echoed the candidates’ calls for a cutback in travel to Cuba and opened an inquiry into a people to people travel program authorized by the U.S. government and sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution.

Apparently missing the memo about avoiding travel to the island, Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, prepared to visit Cuba, meet with President Castro, and sign pacts to expand cooperation with the Cuban government.

President Rousseff will visit the island on Tuesday just as Cuba’s Communist Party Conference will complete its meeting this weekend which, according to President Raúl Castro, will focus on internal party issues – though many had hoped for new announcements on economic reforms and migration.

In a snapshot, the week’s events reminded us of how U.S. policy toward Cuba remains suspended in a state of arrested development, still struggling to escape the politics and ideas of the Cold War, unable to contemplate economic reforms, oil drilling, or the broader changes taking place in Cuba, while Brazil – like the rest of Latin America – is on a trajectory that builds on engagement and mutual respect; on a trajectory that leads to the future.

This week in Cuba news…

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Florida Primary Pander-Fest Preview; Hunger striker dies in Cuba; Drilling rig arrives off Cuban coast

January 20, 2012

Cuba-bashing by both U.S. political parties is a four-season sport in American politics.  But it always reaches a fevered pitch around election time.

Over the last twenty years, big changes in U.S. policy that turned tighter the screws of the embargo took place in presidential campaign years.

Other than politics, it’s hard to explain why the Cuba Democracy Act passed in 1992, the Helms-Burton Act became law in 1996, or the Bush travel restrictions which clamped down on Cuban American travel to the island were imposed in 2004.

As policy makers toughen the policy in Washington, candidates are out on the trail with red-meat rhetoric to try and outdo their opponents and prove their anti-Castro bona fides.

In 2007, during the last campaign, candidates at a Univision debate were asked about the Castro regime having survived nine U.S. Presidents.  “What would you do differently,” the moderator said, “that has not been done so far, to bring democracy to Cuba?”

Senator Fred Thompson replied with tough talk, “I’m going to make sure that he didn’t survive ten U.S. presidents.”

Also running that year, Governor Mitt Romney endorsed the embargo, promised Cuban Americans he’d stand “side by side with the members of this community in fighting the menace of the Cuban Monsters,” and quoted Fidel Castro, using the phrase “Patria o muerte, venceremos [Fatherland or death, we will prevail],” in the mistaken belief that the slogan would rouse hardliners in the exile community to his side.

Four years later, it’s happening again.

Gov. Romney was out last fall with a white paper calling Cuba a rogue nation leading a virulently anti-American movement across Latin America and castigating the Obama administration for relaxing sanctions on Cuba without “demanding reforms.”

These days, according to press reports, while maintaining his tough stand from 2008, Romney mentions “almost nothing” about Cuba’s off-shore drilling and U.S. Cuba relations; he’s campaigned in Florida mainly against President Obama and promoting his economic plans.

But his surrogates have Romney’s back: with Capitol Hill Cubans attacking his opponents and with endorsements by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, former Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (who defend Romney against attacks for his anti-Dream Act immigration stance before Latino audiences).

Perhaps sensing a void, Speaker Gingrich is on the offensive. He has at least one commentator cheer-leading his pandering appeals to Miami Cubans.  Gingrich casts himself as the harshest critic of the Castro regime, vows to reestablish the Bush-era travel restrictions on Cuban Americans, has hired a top campaign adviser to Florida Senator Marco Rubio, and offers a less restrictive immigration policy.

He is also running this Spanish-language radio spot which ridicules Romney’s Castro sloganeering from 2007 and talks up his work in Congress with Romney supporters Ros-Lehtinen and Diaz-Balart on Helms-Burton in 1996.

With the Florida presidential primary taking place on January 31, two nationally-televised debates set for Tampa (NBC) on Monday and Jacksonville (CNN) on Thursday, and four candidates including the anti-embargo Rep. Ron Paul and the pro-Monroe Doctrine Sen. Rick Santorum vying for votes, it’s hard to believe the anti-Cuba pander-monium won’t really get out of hand.

This actually matters.  While many Americans correctly view campaign pandering with cynicism, candidates tend to mean – and do as officeholders – what they actually say during campaigns.  That’s especially true of presidents who can wheel freely on foreign policy (more so than on domestic affairs).

As one scholar wrote recently:

I suspect that many Americans would be quite skeptical of the idea that elected officials, presidents included, try to keep the promises they made on the campaign trail.

Political scientists, however, have been studying this question for some time, and what they’ve found…is that presidents invariably attempt to carry out their promises…presidents’ agendas are clearly telegraphed in their campaigns.

The rhetoric also matters because the issues matter.

Whether it’s the sad news that we report on the death of Wilmar Villar, a 31-year-old dissident, who has just died in prison after a nearly two-month hunger strike; the predicament of Alan Gross, the U.S. contractor starting his third year in jail for carrying on activities under a regime change program some of the candidates are promising to intensify; the imminence of Cuba drilling in the Gulf of Mexico; or anyone one of a number of issues made more complicated by the existence of the embargo, it matters what the candidates say about these issues because any one of them could be elected president and have the opportunity to turn their rhetoric into U.S. foreign policy come 2013.

All of us had better be paying attention and listening.

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Cuban Prisoners Released; U.S. Inspects and OK’s Drilling Rig; a Tale of Two Visits

January 13, 2012

Just before Christmas, in an address before Cuba’s National Assembly, President Raúl Castro announced that the Council of State agreed to pardon more than 2,900 prisoners.  The list reflected reviews by various Cuban state institutions, requests from family members, and “a number of religious institutions,” he said, including the Council of  Churches and the Conference of Catholic Bishops.

He continued:  “The announced visit to Cuba by Pope Benedict XVI and the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the image of the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, have also been taken into account.”

In relation to the Pope’s visit, President Castro said:

Our people and government will have the honor of welcoming His Holiness with affection and respect.

We Cubans have not forgotten the sentiments of friendship and respect left in 1998 by the presence on our soil of Pope John Paul II.

Pretty significant. Cuba’s Catholic Church and the Vatican have pursued a policy of engagement with Cuba’s government and reaped the rewards that flow from the position of respect from which they have operated.   Releases of political prisoners in 2010 and 2011 – as well as the actions undertaken in December –demonstrate the effectiveness of this approach.

Elements of Pope Benedict’s itinerary were released this week; among the highlights:  he will celebrate Mass in Revolutionary Plaza in Havana before an audience that will include Cuban Americans from Miami who are now organizing a pilgrimage to be among the faithful.

News about his plans, however, may well have been overshadowed by the controversy surrounding another visit to Cuba, by Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

We do not minimize in any way the concern people feel about Iran’s nuclear program and the threat that nuclear weapons pose to world peace.

But while the reaction it generated may have obscured the news about the Pope’s itinerary, we think in the tale of these two visits, we expect more to come from his visit in March than anyone has to fear from the visit of Iran’s president this week.

The Pope’s trip– coming at a time when Cuba is reforming its economy and considering changes in areas like migration that can give greater opportunity to Cuba’s people – can be as historic and meaningful as his predecessor’s in 1998.

This is the power, even the magic, of engagement.

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Special for Cuba Central Readers – Venezuela in 2012, the Election Outlook, the Impact on Cuba, and CELAC, too!

January 6, 2012

While we wait for the Cuba Central Team to assemble after the holiday, we have a special treat for our readers – a compelling report about the upcoming presidential election in Venezuela; a milestone in that country’s politics with profound implications for Cuba.

For the last twelve years, President Hugo Chávez has governed Venezuela, led on issues relating to political and economic integration in the region, and constructed a tight relationship with Cuba.  Ill with an undisclosed form of cancer and addressing tough economic conditions in his country, he is facing a competitive election against an apparently united political opposition.  Reelected, Chávez would continue ties with Cuba; defeated the future of the Venezuela-Cuba relationship and Venezuela’s support for Cuba’s economy will be in doubt.

To understand the larger context of what is happening in Venezuela, we asked our colleague and trusted advisor, Dr. Dan  Hellinger to consider writing a piece that analyzed Venezuela’s election outlook and related issues for our Cuba Central audience.  We know of no one more qualified to do this, and Dan returned with an essay that we think is quite extraordinary.

Dan’s day job is Professor of Political Science at Webster University.  He is a co-editor, contributor, and author of several books such as Venezuelan Politics in the Chávez Era,Venezuela: Tarnished Democracy, and The Democratic Facade. His future publications include Democracy at Last textbook and Participation, the State and Civil Society in Venezuela co-edited book.

He also moonlights as a musician and as emeritus president of the Center for Democracy in the Americas.

We’ll be back on track with news from Cuba next week.  Until then, please read and enjoy what Dan has to say.

Happy New Year!

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