Should He Stay or Should He Go? President Obama and the clash over Cuba attending the Summit of the Americas

February 24, 2012

President Obama, who campaigned for office promising to engage in aggressive and principled bilateral diplomacy with Cuba, must now consider whether to engage in calm and business-like multilateral diplomacy with Cuba, when the Summit of the Americas convenes in Cartagena, Colombia, April 14-15.

Hardliners in the U.S. Congress want him to boycott the whole thing.

Here’s the issue.

TheSummitof theAmericasis where periodic meetings take place among leaders from theWestern Hemispherenations so can they address common challenges and problems.  The 34 nations in attendance are the members of the OAS.

Cubahas never attended theSummitof theAmericas, which has been held since 1994, because it remains suspended from the OAS.  In 1962, the organization decided thatCuba’s Marxist government was not in line with its democratic objectives.

A June 3, 2009 resolution opened the door toCubarejoining the OAS. Cuba’s membership is contingent upon “a process of dialogue initiated at the request of the Government of Cuba, and in accordance with the practices, purposes, and principles of the OAS.”

For a variety of reasons, that process has not taken place, not the least of which is that Cubaprofesses no interest, as the BBC recently reported, in rejoining the organization.

However, at a recent meeting of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our Americas, President Rafael Correa of Ecuadorproposed that ALBA nations boycott this year’s summit – to be hosted by Colombia  – if Cuba is not invited.Cuba has indicated that it would accept an invitation to attend the summit.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, wants President Obama to boycott the summit if Colombia  invites Cuba. Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement that “Cuba has no right to participate in thisSummit because it is not a member of the OAS and does not meet the basic criteria to become one.”

But it is Colombia, and not the OAS, that has the ultimate say over which nations are invited.  So far, Colombiahas remained neutral.  That said, the possibility of Cubaattending for the first time has been brought to the table, and this is why hardliners in the U.S.are wringing their hands. 

Saying the prospect of Cubaattending will turn the summit into a “hate fest,” Rep. Ros-Lehtinen argues the ALBA leaders are attempting to hijack the meeting, and that Obama should shun the event entirely and pass up the chance to engage withCuba and other summit members.

This comes as no surprise: Rep. Ros-Lehtinen and other Cold War Warriors in Congress have a track record of opposing multilateral forums in the region.  Last year, she and several Floridacolleagues passed legislation in the House Foreign Affairs Committee to stop U.S.funding for the OAS, accusing the organization of being anti-American and of supporting Cuba, Venezuela’s president Hugo Chávez, and former Honduran president Manuel Zelaya. The U.S. gives the OAS $48.5 million annually, and President Obama’s new budget increases that amount by $1.5 million.

At the same time, Ms. Ros-Lehtinen and her allies are claiming thatIran’s increasing ties toLatin Americaconstitute a looming national security threat. These allegations are largely unsubstantiated.  But even if they were true it would be dangerous for theU.S.to remove itself politically from Latin America, boycotting the only body where theU.S.interacts with Latin American countries at the level of a regional organization.

What in fact is so wrong with having Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro at the same summit?  There’s much to be gained if the two countries were to start talking and, compared to the status quo, nothing to lose.  We’ve been waiting since 2009 for both presidents to be in the same room; getting them together in a multilateral setting is a good idea to kick-start the conversation.

We don’t really expect President Obama to heed the call for a U.S.boycott of the summit if Colombiainvites Cubato attend.  But if he has any doubts, he could address them by reading the speech he delivered in April 2009 when theSummit of theAmericas was last held inTrinidad and Tobago.

To move forward, we cannot let ourselves be prisoners of past disagreements….Too often, an opportunity to build a fresh partnership of the Americas has been undermined by stale debates. And we’ve heard all these arguments before, these debates that would have us make a false choice between rigid, state-run economies or unbridled and unregulated capitalism; between blame for right-wing paramilitaries or left-wing insurgents; between sticking to inflexible policies with regard to Cuba or denying the full human rights that are owed to the Cuban people.

I didn’t come here to debate the past — I came here to deal with the future. 

Obviously, he should go.

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Regime Change: AP Breaks Story Challenging US Account in Alan Gross Case

February 17, 2012

The most important story that was published this week about U.S.-Cuba relations related to the sad, as of yet unresolved, case of Alan Gross.

Mr. Gross is the USAID subcontractor convicted last March of undertaking activities funded by the Helms-Burton Act, which explicitly calls for regime change in Cuba.

Cuban officials, at the time of Mr. Gross’s arrest, said that he was an intelligence agent.   The U.S. government asserted that his actions amounted to nothing more than efforts to better connect Cuba’s Jewish community to the Internet and should not be considered illegal under Cuban law.   To this date, U.S. officials have not deviated from their benign description of his work.

This week, the Associated Press published a story about his case and his activities prior to his arrest that explains why Cuba’s government thinks he was doing more than making innocuous Internet connections.  It also means that even though Alan Gross was not engaged in espionage, the U.S. government has a lot more explaining to do about what he, and most other “democracy promotion” contractors and grantees are actually up to in Cuba.

According to the AP, Mr. Gross filed reports that demonstrate he knew that what he was doing was against Cuban law.  On five occasions, he secreted into Cuba the kind of equipment for which nearly every country in the world would require special permission.  This included advanced satellite communications hubs, and a sophisticated electronic chip that could prevent the detection of signals for a 250-mile radius.  Each time he entered Cuba he falsely claimed he was visiting the island as a tourist, actions that are considered felonies under U.S. law if undertaken by an alien seeking entry into the United States.

Cuba’s Jewish community neither requested nor needed this equipment.  But, he persuaded other Americans visiting Cuba to bring the illegal equipment into the country without informing them that they were violating Cuban law, placing them in harm’s way.  He also provided the electronics to unsuspecting Cuban recipients without informing them of their provenance, exposing them to prosecution by the Cuban state.

According to some interpretations, what Alan Gross did not only violated Cuban law, but may have also violated U.S. law, because he put to use in Cuba sophisticated electronic equipment that required­­ a license for export that he may never have obtained.

All of this said, Mr. Gross appears to be a pawn and a victim of the Cold War politics that have divided Cuba and the United States for more than fifty years.  His mother is suffering from lung cancer; one of his daughters is suffering from breast cancer; his wife is soldiering on alone, struggling with the financial and emotional burdens of her separation from her husband and her family’s illnesses.  Mr. Gross has been incarcerated for more than two years, is suffering enormously from his confinement, and his case evokes genuine humanitarian concerns.

Against the backdrop of the factual record, the U.S. government simply demands his unconditional release – without acknowledging publicly that these programs, even if not espionage, are out of control and, possibly in some cases, inconsistent with U.S. policy and perhaps U.S. law.  Even worse, rather than admitting “you got us,” the State Department has doubled-down on its explanations and its denials, making it a lot more difficult to achieve resolution on Mr. Gross’s case.

Hardline legislators, like Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, admonish the U.S. government against negotiating with Cuba at all to secure his release, calling such efforts “appeasement.” Mr. Gross is being left on the battlefield without recourse.

The U.S. government needs to come clean and acknowledge that Mr. Gross’s activities violated Cuban law and negotiate for his release on that basis.  It needs to end a program that has wasted $200 million over the last decade funding regime change activities that pose a greater risk not to Cuba’s government but to the Cuban citizens it implicates without their knowledge.   Most of all, the U.S. government should stop imposing restrictions on the liberties of Americans to visit Cuba, honestly and openly, through the front door, so that Cubans and U.S. citizens could educate each other about their ideas, interests, and ideals. Cuba, too, needs to do its part to end this impasse.  The status quo is not sustainable.

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The Embargo at 50: Is anyone really celebrating?

February 10, 2012

If you “celebrated” the fiftieth birthday of the embargo against Cuba this week, we hope you had some of those special candles that magicians use that cannot be blown out and re-light automatically.

Even though it has never achieved its goal of strangling Cuba economically and replacing its government with one that pleases Washington, the embargo is likely to be with us a good while longer.

The U.S. trade embargo on Cuba was signed by President John F. Kennedy on February 3rd, 1962 and it entered into effect four days later. To this day, U.S. sanctions against Cuba – which encompass a mind-boggling number of laws, regulations, and restrictions – are the most restrictive our government imposes against any nation on Earth.

The embargo restricts the constitutional rights of U.S. citizens to visit the island.

With narrow exceptions, it places commerce with Cuba completely off-limits, stunting U.S. profits, jobs, and the relationships that develop between partners who trade.

It places us at odds with our allies in the region and globally, and we’re subjected to ridicule and censure annually when the U.N. General Assembly denounces the policy with resolutions supported by friends and foes alike.

As we discussed in detail in our book about engagement, the policy hurts U.S. security, limits our ability to cooperate with Cuba on matters that concern us both like migration and illegal drugs, prevents Americans citizens from accessing significant Cuban medical advances, and severely limits our ability to protect the environment (kind of a big deal with Cuba drilling for oil offshore in the Gulf of Mexico).

The American people surveyed this year overwhelmingly want diplomatic relations with Cuba and a majority would support lifting the trade embargo.

Why wouldn’t they?  Practical people, seeing something that has failed utterly for fifty years, hurting the intended beneficiaries, would obviously want to try something new.

But none of this matters to the defenders of the status quo who believe that the “benefits” of the embargo will someday materialize…as the rest of us wait for Godot.

Just this week, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, was joined by Representatives Mario Díaz-Balart, Albio Sires and David Rivera in releasing statements saying the embargo “demonstrates U.S. solidarity with Cuban people” and that more sanctions must be imposed now.

This, of course, will come as no shock to the Cuban people, who don’t have warm feelings of solidarity, but ones of sadness and frustration that the policy remains in place at all.

Oscar Espinosa Chepe, a well-known government critic and economist by profession, argues that the policy has only served “to give the Cuban government an alibi to declare Cuba a fortress under siege, to justify repression and to (pass) the blame for the economic disaster in Cuba.”

A video of BBC street interviews shows a range of reactions to the embargo: one man laments the higher prices that Cuba must pay for imports; a woman claims that the embargo prevents the critically ill from obtaining necessary medicines. But perhaps most telling about the legacy of this 50-year old policy is the response of a middle-aged man interviewed on the street holding a small child:

In a way, it has affected us. But at the same time, it hasn’t. What can I say – in the end life goes on, everyone carries on with their jobs, with their lives, like nothing has ever happened.

In many ways, the U.S. has simply embargoed itself, dealt us out of the Cuba equation, politically and economically, and there’s no end to the policy in sight.

As Lou Perez wrote so eloquently:

The embargo has achieved a life of its own.  Its very longevity serves as the logic for its continuance, evidence of the utter incapacity of U.S. political leaders to move beyond the failures of their own making…That the embargo has not yet accomplished what it set out to do, in exquisite Kafkaesque reasoning, simply means that more time is required.

In other words, better hang on to those candles.

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Never Mind the Debates; Cuba Knows Brazil; Term Limits Adopted; Gross Documents Release

February 3, 2012

In his perceptive essay, “The Debate the GOP Didn’t Have in Florida,” Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, expresses discouragement at the Republican candidates who debated in Florida twice last week.

He writes:

To the extent Latin America was treated at all, the discussion has been dominated by phantom threats and tired bromides.

Shifter is right.  Here’s a powerful example.  Of course we heard much in the debates about the candidates’ bright shining objects – Iran, Cuba, Venezuela, migration, terrorism, etc. But when we scanned the transcripts from Tampa and Jacksonville, debates which occurred last week before the Florida primary, the word Brazil was never mentioned by any of the four candidates, amidst the hundreds that they uttered.

How is this possible?

Maybe this U.S. ally with the growing economy that is marching millions from poverty into the middle class with an increasingly dominant energy production profile, and an upcoming World Cup and Olympics somehow slipped their minds.

Or perhaps the blind spot stems from Brazil’s very different perspective on the region, which was certainly on display this week during President Dilma Rousseff’s visit to Cuba.

In Cuba, President Rousseff:

  • Met with President Raúl Castro and, as IPS reported, felt “immensely honored” to meet former president Fidel Castro;
  • Visited the Mariel container port where Brazil is investing $640 million as part of a $900 million modernization of the facility;
  • Signed agreements, as Reuters reported, involving Cuba’s biotechnology and pharmaceuticals industry;
  • Agreed to give Cuba $400 million in credits to purchase food from Brazil and invested $200 million in Cuba agriculture; and,
  • When the subject of human rights came up, she “chided the United States for continuing to operate its Guantanamo Bay prison,” according to UPI, and denounced the U.S. trade embargo of Cuba.

As we might expect, there was carping in some precincts about the president’s decision not to publicly confront the Cuban government on the issue of human rights (although Brazil did grant, coincident with the visit, a visa to the dissident blogger, Yoani Sanchez).

But, as Arturo Lopez-Levy argues in The Havana Note, the choice is not between whether to confront Cuba or engage with Cuba, but what kind of engagement takes place.  “Brazil, “he wrote, “is a strategic partner for Cuba in its process of economic reform and Cuba’s foreign policy objectives.”

In other words, this gives Brazil special influence –not in the abstract, not to check a box—but through productive dialogue behind the scenes.  It also demonstrates how a nation can effectively tie together its values and its national interests.

That approach may be a little too subtle for candidates running for high office in the U.S., but it contains a useful reminder of how differently Latin America views its own issues, and how more productive U.S. diplomacy could be if we followed Brazil’s example.

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