Latin America Stone Sober

October 26, 2012

The final presidential debate between President Obama and Governor Romney took place on Monday.  The subject was foreign policy.  Serious business, you’d think, given the state of the world and America’s messy place in it.

Although this third match-up could have had a huge impact on the outcome of the election, the size of the television audience slipped; from a high of 67.2 million viewers in the first go-around to a more modest turn-out of 59.2 million, according to CBS News.

Not only did it excite less interest, but the pre-debate analysis spun into unusual territory: drinking games (as in take a drink whenever Candidate X mentions Y).  The patter started, of course, with college humor; then reasonably harmless jokes about the economy; and moved to the politics of the Middle East – all covered with playful efficiency by the folks at NPR.

What’s our point?  Had you watched the debate and played your drinking game tied to mentions of Cuba or Latin America by the candidates, you would have ended the evening close to stone cold sober.

Eric Farnsworth, writing for the Americas Quarterly, heard the debate as we did and branded it for the failure it was:

This was largely the fault of the moderator, who began promisingly enough with reference to the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis and then, rather than following up with questions designed to elicit new and revealing answers, immediately inquired about Libya…

After an introduction on Cuba, why not ask a logical first question such as “What do you do immediately upon hearing that Fidel Castro has died?” That would reveal the instincts of the commander-in-chief in unpredictable crisis management—addressing historic changes 90 miles from the United States.

It’s not like that wasn’t on people’s minds.  We wrote about the ghouls coming out in force over former President Castro’s health this week, calling our Cold War preoccupation with his mortality the “vestigial tail that our body politic refuses to shake.”

But after a glancing blow by Gov. Romney about Obama’s expiring 2008 promise to talk to leaders like Raúl Castro, they returned to the fog of Middle East war and the back and forth over China and military spending, etc.

Why not spend time discussing the region closest to us?  Again, Farnsworth:

The list of questions is limitless, and a line has to be drawn somewhere. But why is it that the line that is drawn by debate moderators—wherever it is—invariably excludes the geographic neighborhood in which we ourselves live? Perhaps if the candidates were asked about Latin America from time to time, the message would be sent that the region matters as a foreign policy issue. Because, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, it does.

What our leaders say and do about Cuba and the Caribbean, Central and South America, does matter enormously; sometimes for good and often for ill.  We don’t need, for example, a repetition of Woodrow Wilson’s approach, who famously said “I am going to teach the South American republics to elect good men!”

What we do need is a renewed commitment and reengagement with the region that finally gets it right.  Ted Piccone, deputy director of foreign policy at Brookings, wrote how it could all begin with Cuba:

And then there is Cuba, which happened to get the moderator’s opening line about the 50th anniversary of the nuclear missile crisis. How fitting, since U.S. policy remains stuck in a Cold War time warp. To break that logjam, the next president will need to raise his sights beyond electoral politics and calculate that direct engagement with an evolving Cuba will protect America’s national interests better than embargoes and isolation….It can be done if the next president has the wisdom and the courage to take Latin America seriously.

If and when that happens, we’ll say, Mojitos all around.

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Opening the Flawed Gates

October 19, 2012

In the U.S. and overseas, Cuba’s government has been criticized for limiting the travel rights of its own citizens.  Those restrictions are often cited as an obstacle to the improvement of bi-lateral relations.  But now, change has come.

Today, we explain this new Cuban government policy that offers its citizens a path for both exit and return, and talk about what it means.  Finally, we ask whether Washington will simply ignore what has occurred, or react in a meaningful way.

This is news.  Effective January 14, 2013, the Cuban government will abolish the widely resented and costly exit visa and the accompanying invitation letter that Cubans have been required to obtain in order to travel abroad.  The reforms to the 1976 Migratory Law and 1978 Migratory Law Regulations, published in the Official Gazette, herald an enormous change.

As explained in Granma, the new migratory regulations were adopted as a “sovereign decision by the Cuban state [and] do not constitute an isolated act, but are rather an important component of the irreversible process underway to normalize relations with the country’s émigré community.”

Cuban Americans For Engagement (CAFÉ), whose members have been holding talks with representatives of Cuba’s government about eliminating barriers to reconciliation between Cubans on the island and in the diaspora, see this reform as evidence that engagement is the key to bringing about change.

Enthusiasm over this development has future travelers forming long lines at immigration offices to take advantage of the current passport fee, which will nearly double to $100 in mid-January. This price hike has prompted Senator Marco Rubio of Florida to dismiss the move as merely cosmetic and transferring the costs associated with the exit visa to the process of passport issuance. But the Senator is misinformed. In fact, the new law cuts costs by a third.

As we understand, the current fees for travel documents are roughly: passport, $55; exit visa, $150; and invitation letter, $100 and up. Under the new law, the passport will be the only necessary document. Those already holding a passport in January (including those standing in line today) will be able to get a free stamp to upgrade it to the new system.

Moreover, the permitted length of stay abroad has been expanded from 11 months to 24 months. This leads to major potential savings because Cubans are, and will continue to be, charged a monthly fee for extensions. The amount of this fee will remain unchanged. On the other hand, the law stipulates terms for pensioners to continue receiving their income while abroad or to designate a substitute recipient.

Although the reforms clearly delineate who will be considered eligible for a passport and travel and who will not, the wording in some instances is vague enough as to be open to interpretation. For example, one category of ineligible individuals includes those whose absence would hinder the preservation of a qualified workforce. But it should hardly come as a surprise the Cuba’s government would try to “attenuate the effects” of brain-drain, as Jesús Arboleya Cervera explains in Progreso Weekly, which “limits the development of Third-World countries.”

Less noticed, the reforms are not a one way street. For example, of special interest to Cubans who have absconded over the years while on authorized travel, starting next year, émigrés will be able to apply to recoup their residency directly at any of Cuba’s embassies or consulates.

There is fine print and more to learn, but on the whole, this is very good news.  Cuba moves closer to the travel freedoms for its citizens as urged by the human rights community.  Most Cuban citizens, come January, will be able to think, practically, about exit and return to the island, about employment elsewhere and sending money home to relatives.  This strikes a blow for the autonomy of everyday Cubans and the vitality of the Cuban economy.

To date, our State Department hasn’t offered much reaction.  When asked at her press briefing whether the U.S. would react positively to the reforms, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said:

MS. NULAND: Well, as you know, we’ve been very outspoken. We are not shy in all of our public and private comments on Cuba that we want to see the human rights of the Cuban people respected. This is certainly a step, but I would advise that even with regard to this step, we await further information, because as I said, it’s not being implemented until January 14th.

If the Eeyores at the State Department need inspiration for how to react, they could turn to CAFÉ, which implores the U.S. to reciprocate by eliminating the Cuba travel ban, thereby bringing U.S. “policy in line with international models.” Or to Rep. James McGovern (MA-3), whose recent essay in Politico calls upon next president to move beyond the Cold War and normalize relations with Cuba.

Now is the time for a creative and affirmative U.S. policy response.  But, we’re not holding our breath.  And we suspect the Cubans aren’t either.  That said, this is real change and it really ought to be acknowledged.

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Talk to Cuba

October 12, 2012

An article published this week by The Cable ran with the headline “Top Romney Advisor supports negotiating with terrorists.”  It told the story of Mitchell Reiss, named one year ago, to a top spot on the Governor’s campaign foreign policy team.

In a 2010 book, Reiss presented “an argument that the United States not only should, but at times must enter into conversations with hostile foreign elements.”  Reiss is not indiscriminate about negotiations and, in fact, published a tough piece in January criticizing the Obama administration’s negotiating strategy with the Taliban; not saying it was wrong, but arguing it was poorly conceived.

Even that was too much for his candidate.  Just four days later, at a debate in South Carolina, when a Fox News reporter asked Governor Romney if Reiss was wrong about talking to the enemy, he threw Reiss under the bus and said yes.

It is odd just how out of fashion talking to our adversaries has become.  We are able to celebrate a milestone this month, the fiftieth anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, because President John F. Kennedy thought that talking to the Soviet Union would be preferable to having our country and theirs blown to kingdom come.  Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev used diplomacy to avoid catastrophe.

This week, Nicholas Burns, a veteran diplomat, wrote about the missile crisis and what lessons it might offer to President Obama and Governor Romney as they think about U.S. foreign policy in 2013 and the years to come.

“Kennedy concluded,” Burns wrote, “that we had to think about the Soviet people in a fundamentally different way if we wanted to avoid nuclear Armageddon… Kennedy advocated building bridges to the Soviets, as the ‘human interest’ of avoiding world war had to eclipse the more narrow ‘national interest.’”

This is, after all, the conclusion that the Government of Colombia and the FARC reached, preparing as they are for peace negotiations next week in Oslo, and later this month in Cuba.  President Juan Manuel Santos is saying already he is confident that the FARC is willing to reach an agreement to end the decades-long civil war.

Direct diplomacy with Cuba is what President Obama promised in the 2008 campaign.  Nothing indiscriminate; “There will be careful preparation. We will set a clear agenda,” Obama said in a speech before the Cuban American National Foundation.  His view was endorsed by Jorge Mas Santos, son of the founder of CANF, once the epicenter of support for a hardline against the Castro government:

“The other centerpiece of U.S. – Cuba policy has been that there should be no negotiations and conversations with Raul Castro,” Mr. Santos said. “Although this may sound tough, on its own it is ineffective and plays into the hands of Raúl Castro.”

At the beginning of his term, Mr. Obama acted as if he could think about Cuba’s people in a different way.  He restarted Migration Talks that George Bush broke off.  He permitted U.S. participation in below the radar, multi-party talks including Cuba on oil drilling in the Gulf and protecting the environment we share.  The governments have spoken directly, about imprisoned U.S. contractor Alan Gross, and at the margins of international conferences.

At times, Cuba’s government was probably uncooperative.  There’s undoubtedly more that we don’t know.  But it’s hard to discern the results if there is.  In a world where talking to “the enemy” is so discredited, this appears to have been all they could do.

Surely, as President Kennedy liked to say, we can do “bettah.”

In 2009, Peter Kornbluh, who directs the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archive, and William LeoGrande, Dean of the School of Public Affairs at American University, published a compelling history of U.S. negotiations with Cuba and laid out a roadmap for how the two countries could sit down and really make progress.

Both candidates can read the entire article on the Internet.  Here’s hoping the victor has a working browser.  If Kennedy could deal with Khrushchev, and Colombia can talk to the FARC, surely the next U.S. president should talk directly to Cuba.  He might consider ending the Cold War and letting the citizens of both countries move along with our lives.  Bolder figures have done a lot more even when faced with greater stakes.

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On the freedom to travel

October 5, 2012

For months, supporters of people-to-people travel to Cuba, renewed by President Obama in 2011, feared the administration was burying the program in paperwork, stalling license renewals, and could even end it, due to unyielding election year pressure by opponents who always have opposed the freedom to travel.

At least for now, these worst fears may not be realized.   As USA Today reports, “the trips appear to be back on track,” and cites the renewal of Insight Cuba’s license which plans to offer more than 100 departures from now through 2013.

When it comes to Cuba policy, nothing seems to be permanent, and this good news is no guarantee against future reversals. Still, it might be a good time to think about how we get from where we were – to where we are now—to where we might be going.

President Obama came to office with a pledge to end punishing Bush-era restrictions on travel.  In 2009, he provided unlimited travel rights to Cuban American family members, and two years later offered broader changes:  opening up people-to-people travel, restoring non-family remittances, and giving more airports in the U.S. the opportunity to serve the Cuban market.

This was not the full freedom to travel to Cuba that most Americans support (in fact, we support the freedom to travel for citizens of both countries), but these changes in U.S. policy were meaningful to a lot of people.

Cuban dissidents embraced the changes.  The Catholic Bishops issued a statement of support as did Human Rights Watch. Educators celebrated the restoration of travel following Bush era restrictions that cut the number of U.S. students studying in Cuba from 2,000 to 60.

Even the head of the Cuban-American National Foundation, once the center of support for the embargo, released a statement endorsing the President’s actions: “It is significant that these measures do not represent a concession to the Castro regime, but rather form part of a continuing series of unilateral measures that the US is taking which demonstrate a concern for the well-being of ordinary folks.”

But the hardliners were buying none of it.  Before the reforms were announced, Senator Marco Rubio said on Spanish language radio that he’d educate his colleagues and rally Congress to block them.  Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz said the new rules “will pump much-needed money into the desperate Cuban economy, boosting the Castro regime.”  Senators Rubio and Menendez prepared an amendment in the U.S. Senate to derail the changes.  Rep. David Rivera authored legislation to repeal travel rights and to stop green card holders from visiting the island.  Exile critics even denounced family members for traveling to Cuba by sponging off their welfare payments.

Their activities culminated in votes by Congress to repeal the family travel and people-to-people rules.   After hardliners threatened to use a 2012 budget bill to cut off travel, President Obama issued a rare statement promising a veto if it reached his desk.

Thwarted in efforts to move legislation, critics directed their fire at the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).  They accused OFAC of weakening the rules.  They started a Congressional investigation of trips by the Smithsonian Institution.  After some providers of the new services used language in their ads inconsistent with rules against tourism, OFAC issued an advisory to get them to pay attention.

Late in 2011, Senator Rubio in an angry floor speech denounced the trips as “an outrage. They’re grotesque.  And they’re providing hard currency to a regime that oppresses its people, who jails people because they disagree with the government.”  To exert more pressure on travel, he out a temporary hold blocking the nomination of Roberta Jacobson to serve as Obama’s Assistant Secretary for Latin America.  She was confirmed, but then OFAC tightened the rules.

The new restrictions put in place last May required organizers to provide detailed itineraries of every trip and to explain how activities would “enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society, and/or help promote the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities.”

As license approvals slowed to a crawl, the program looked in real jeopardy, and nothing would change until at least after the election.  So, it is a relief to read now, as the Los Angeles Times reports, “American travel to Cuba…may soon be surging again.”

We’ll know more in about four weeks.  Governor Romney promises to repeal the travel reforms.  His advisors include Ray Walser of the Heritage Foundation, who wrote recently “More liberal guidelines for travel by non–Cuban Americans allows thousands the chance to smoke Cuban cigars, dance a Cuban rumba, visit Old Havana, or indulge in sexual tourism,” Eric Edelman, a former national security aide to Vice President Cheney, and Richard S. Williamson, who organized opposition to Cuba working for the Reagan Administration at the U.N. and who still refers to Russia as “The Soviet Union” twenty years after the end of the Cold War.

Here, in the U.S., the travel saga continues, and it could go either way.

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