At LASA: Scholars Protest Cuba Visa Denials; Romney’s Regime Change Redux; Ricardo In, Restrepo Departs

May 25, 2012

Scholars who lead the Cuba Section of the Latin America Studies Association (LASA) met Thursday evening and debated moving future conferences of the organization outside the U.S. after their ranks were depleted by Obama administration denials of visas for nearly a dozen Cuban academics.

Approximately 5,000 regional experts from nations across the globe arrived in San Francisco this week for the annual meeting of LASA.

The Obama administration has refused to discuss in public its reasons for denying entry for some of Cuba’s most vibrant and candid intellectuals, as they were described in Politico by Sarah Stephens and Phil Brenner, or what threat they constituted to the interests of the United States.

As an editorial in the Washington Post said this week:

The reasons for the rejections are mysterious and mystifying. Of the 11, many are well known and internationally respected academics with long-standing ties to top American scholars. One is a former ambassador to the European Union.

Does the United States feel threatened by Milagros Martinez, vice rector of the University of Havana, who has relentlessly pushed scholarly exchanges with American universities? By Soraya Castro Marino, a serious commentator on U.S.- Cuban relations? By Rafael Hernandez, a scholar and editor who has taught at Harvard and Columbia universities?

LASA scholars, however, said the injury extended further, to their academic freedoms and their rights to hear the Cuban intellectuals speak about developments on the island, U.S. policy, and a variety of subjects ranging migration to race relations in Cuba.

The organization could have been celebrating decades of academic relations with Cuba, whose purpose one academic described as allowing “Cubans to come to academic conferences and speak for themselves and about their own reality.”

That celebration was cancelled.  Instead, the Cuba section paid a silent tribute to the scholars by setting up ten empty chairs adorned only with the names of those who received letters from the United States calling their entry into the country detrimental to U.S. interests.

The visa denials were a throwback to Bush administration policies which regularly prevented Cuban scholars from attending LASA meetings in the U.S.  After it denied visas to all 75 Cubans whom LASA had invited in 2003, the organization vowed not to return to the U.S. until visa policies changed.  With the recent actions by the Obama administration, the Cuba section will ask LASA to hold its annual meetings outside U.S. borders beginning in 2014 until our nation supports the right of Cuban scholars to travel and express themselves freely.

A decision by LASA to stop coming to  the U.S. will hurt our nation’s economy and the vibrancy of our discussions about the entire region. But silence against the infringement of these basic freedoms would constitute acquiescence to a painfully stupid and counterproductive policy.

This week in Cuba news…

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A visa “compromise” detrimental to the interests of the United States

May 18, 2012

You know how Washington works (when it works).  Opposing factions come together and “give something to get something.”  At a time when the machinery of government is so obviously broken, some would argue that more compromise is needed.

For a variety of reasons, a compromise that the Obama administration seems to have brokered – with whom we do not know – has badly backfired and compromised some pretty important principles.  It comes as no surprise that this story is about an egregious misstep on Cuba.

By way of background, the Latin America Studies Association (or “LASA”) will meet next week in San Francisco.   LASA, the most important organization of scholars who study the region, stopped coming to the U.S. for its meetings because the U.S. would not grant visas to Cubans who wanted to participate and it decided not to return to the U.S. until the problem was fixed.

Or so it thought. For next week’s conference, approximately 80 Cubans were invited and applied for visas so they could enter the United States to do so. According to this afternoon’s State Department Daily Press Briefing, of 77 received applications, 60 have been approved, 11 were denied and 6 are pending – for a conference that begins just five days from today.

Who got selected and who got rejected?  Mariela Castro Espin, the renowned champion of gay rights who heads the Cuban National Center for Sex Education, who previously visited the United States under a visa granted by the administration of George W. Bush, was among those Cubans allowed entry to attend LASA next week.

But Soraya Castro Marino, who came to the U.S. in 2010 as a visiting scholar at Harvard was, according to The Washington Post, “found ineligible this time because her presence would ‘detrimental to the interests of the United States’.”  Rafael Hernandez, a scholar who also taught at Harvard and the University of Texas, Carlos Alzugaray, a former Cuban Ambassador to the European Union, Oscar Zanetti, the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a scholar at American University, and several others who had previously received visas from the administration over the last several year were denied visas now –  because their presence would be detrimental to the U.S.

The Obama administration is enforcing no consistent principle for determining who should enter and attend LASA.  If decision makers thought welcoming some and turning away others would win them plaudits they were sadly mistaken.

Phil Brenner, a professor and Cuba scholar at American University, called the decisions “arbitrary, shameful, and cowardly.”  He observed that many of the scholars denied visas “have a history of advocating for improved relations with the United States.”  Ted Piccone, an official at the Brookings Institution who was expecting Carlos Alzugaray at an upcoming event, called it “baffling.  I wish I knew what their thinking was.”

If the administration’s strategy was to buy cheap grace with the hardliners who oppose any dialogue or engagement with Cuba by denying visas to some of Cuba’s most open and incisive intellectuals, this was a total failure.

As the Miami Herald reported, the decision to issue a visa to Mariela Castro, President Raúl Castro’s daughter, drew “irate criticism” from Cuban Americans in Congress.

Senator Bob Menendez said the U.S. government and LASA should not be “in the business of providing a totalitarian regime, like the one in Cuba, with a platform for which to espouse its twisted rhetoric.”  Senator Marco Rubio called the decision an “outrageous and enormous mistake.”  Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen called the decision “beyond comprehension.”

The administration was wrong to compromise not just because it satisfied no one or because no one “gave something to get something.”  It was wrong because the compromise was truly detrimental to the interests of the United States.

The U.S. has a policy of punishing Cuba because we object to features of the Cuban system that limit the rights of travel and expression.  The policy has accomplished none of its stated objectives for half a century.   Our government undermines whatever moral credibility the policy has left by stopping intellectuals from Cuba – who think freely and speak openly about repairing the U.S.-Cuban relationship – from traveling to our country so they could participate in an academic conference…for goodness sakes.

Is it possible that one Cuban invited to attend LASA could utter what Senator Menendez calls “twisted rhetoric” if given the chance?  Perhaps.  But we think our country is strong enough to withstand the shock.  And even if what the Cubans have to say isn’t controversial, we should be committed to their right to come and speak.  That is, what might call, the American way.

Obama should reverse the denials and welcome them in.

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On Mother’s Day in Havana and Washington

May 11, 2012

In the U.S., Mother’s Day is a hallmark of our spring calendar, so we wanted to wish a happy holiday to every mother who reads and enjoys the weekly blast.

As you will read below, the organization called Save the Children has released its annual Mothers Index Rating and has once again listed Cuba as the best country in Latin America for mothers.

This will undoubtedly excite an exaggerated reaction from those who can’t stand seeing Cuba presented in a normal or flattering light.

After the New York Times published its piece earlier this month titled “Cuba May Be the Most Feminist Country in Latin America,” the heavy armor was rolled out.  While reasonable men and women of good will disagree about life and living conditions in Cuba, a discussion of the facts simply couldn’t be allowed to stand.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen called women “the biggest victims of the Cuban regime,” the author and others holding this view were labeled as apologists, the perspective called “unspeakable,” the New York Times didn’t just publish the article, it ‘squealed,’ etc.

One can only imagine the hail storm that awaits Save the Children.

But this week the hardliners didn’t own the monopoly on absurdity.   Special credit was earned by the U.S. State Department which publicly rejected an offer by Cuba to negotiate with the United States on a broad range of issues, including the Alan Gross case.

Mr. Gross, imprisoned in Cuba since December 2009, for his work in a USAID-funded regime change program, and sentenced to 15 years in prison, pleaded for a brief release to visit his mother, aged ninety, who is suffering from cancer – a Mother’s Day gift they could both enjoy – and made his case in a telephone interview with CNN.

Reacting to the interview, Josefina Vidal, a top Cuban Foreign Ministry official, said that while Cuba was ready to engage in a dialogue with the U.S. on Mr. Gross’s case, Havana wanted “to sit down at the negotiating table with Washington to discuss all outstanding issues in an effort to establish normal relations,” according to CBS News.

Rather than seizing the initiative, the State Department “reacted sharply,” saying Vidal’s statement confirmed its belief that Mr. Gross is a hostage and there is no justification for his continued imprisonment.

Meanwhile, the New York Times reported that the Obama administration is negotiating with the Taliban on a prisoner exchange that could free an American soldier held hostage in Afghanistan.

Leaving us to wonder what principle is at stake when U.S. decides who to talk to about what.

Our policy of not talking directly to Cuba on subjects core to the national interest, such as protecting our shared environment against an oil spill, or as central to our humanitarian interests as freeing a pawn in our Cold War efforts to topple the Cuban government, both of which we discuss below, might be good politics in some precincts, but it’s a substantial and damaging  failure to communicate.

Our mothers never would approve of that.

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Governor Scott steps on a rake; the Cuba Transition Project loses the plot

May 4, 2012

Last week, we reported on Governor Rick Scott’s decision to sign legislation to stop Florida’s municipalities and state agencies from doing business with companies that have dealings with Syria and – the intended target – Cuba.  At the time, we called him “cynical” for signing legislation that is probably unconstitutional and bad for business and the economy of his state just to score points with hardliners in the Cuban American community.   It turns out we gave him far too much credit.

On Tuesday, Scott signed the bill at a ceremony staged at the Freedom Tower in Miami to impress the hardliners who sponsored and supported the legislation most strongly.  But immediately after the event, he issued a letter indicating the law might be unconstitutional. Scott didn’t utter a word about his doubts or about his letter while the signing ceremony was taking place.  The Miami Herald said that “No governor in recent memory has signed a law and then called it unenforceable in his bill signing.” His cheering section felt blind-sided and betrayed.  Congressman David Rivera threatened to sue Governor Scott.  Cowed by controversy, Scott doubled back, promising to enforce the law.

What was he thinking?

Scott’s office issued a statement that got close to the truth:  “After consulting with all interested parties and thoroughly weighing all sides of this issue, Governor Scott signed House Bill 959 into law on May 1, 2012.”  He didn’t just weigh all sides; he adopted virtually every position imaginable on the law before buckling under the weight of a P.R. stunt gone bad.

Moving from the farcical to the tragic, let us briefly take up the promising signs coming from Cuba that Cuban citizens might soon enjoy greater freedoms to travel from and return to the island, and the Cuba Transition Project’s puzzling, even dour, reaction to this news.

Cuba maintains a complicated and costly set of rules that prevent the Cuban people from leaving or returning to the island without their government’s permission.  Cuban citizens are vocal and plain-spoken in their desire to travel freely without having to apply for exit visa, the carta blanca, requests which are often denied. These restrictions are condemned annually by the U.S. State Department and organizations like Human Rights Watch.

As the Associated Press is now reporting, “Cuba appears on the verge of a momentous decision to lift many travel restrictions.”  Some travel controls could be scrapped – cutting the fees to apply for the exit visa, ending limits on how long Cubans can live abroad, and increasing the number of Cubans allowed to travel abroad for work. According to AP, the U.S. State Department “would certainly welcome greater freedom of movement for the Cuban public.”  The news agency quotes a shop worker in Cuba saying “It’s absurd that as a Cuban I must get permission to leave my country, and even worse that I need permission to come back.”

You might well expect the scholars at the Cuba Transition Project, which calls itself “an important and timely project to study and make recommendations for the reconstruction of Cuba once the post-Castro transition begins in earnest,” to regard these reforms as important and, if not timely, certainly long overdue.

Well, instead, they seem quite miffed, very concerned, and surprisingly negative about the whole thing.  In a broadside titled “Is Cuba Planning a Legal Mariel?” Jaime Suchlicki, the Emilio Bacardi Moreau Distinguished Professor and Director, Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, University of Miami, worries that:

  • Cubans will line up in front of foreign embassies to request tourist visas and that the U.S. Interests Section – since most Cubans want to visit the United States – would be most impacted;
  • Airlines will benefit financially from Cubans who fill their seats in flights away from Cuba;
  • It might make Cubans on the island happy(!) because the reform will eliminate one of their major complaints;
  • It’s all a secret plot by President Raúl Castro to relieve internal pressure on the island because so many Cubans will want to come to the United States.

But Dr. Suchlicki has a plan to foil the plot.  Tighten the number of visas the U.S. can give Cubans to visit here.  Stop Cuban Americans from traveling to Cuba (and giving money to their relatives who might want to make reciprocal visits).  And reduce the presence of U.S. diplomats in Cuba so fewer personnel can process an increased number of visas requests.

Why would he suggest such measures?  Because, perhaps, if Cuba’s reforms take place and Cubans can travel freely to the U.S. and elsewhere, the only government restricting its citizens from traveling to Cuba will be ours.  He seems to be saying, forget the liberty interests of average Cubans; Dr. Suchlicki just doesn’t want us to be embarrassed.

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