Double Talk at State and Doubling Down on USAID’s Regime Change Strategy

November 30, 2012

We report on a flurry of activity concerning the case of Alan Gross, just days before the third anniversary of his arrest in Cuba, an event marked at a press conference in Washington this morning by his wife Judy Gross, understandably disconsolate, with his lawyer, Jared Genser, by her side.

Together, they said the Obama administration had failed to pursue vigorous diplomacy sufficient to secure his release.  He feels “dumped and forgotten” by the U.S. government, Mrs. Gross said, like a soldier left to die.  The lawyer’s message to the U.S. government was also direct:  “You sent him there; you have an obligation to get him out.”

In fact, they laid blame at the feet of both governments for being obstacles to the settlement of his case.  They said the Cuban government, which publicly calls for direct negotiations to address his case and the captivity of the Cuban Five, was either unable or unwilling to talk.

But they also made a special point of noting that the Obama administration had actively sought and won the release of Americans imprisoned abroad, and said the administration should pick an envoy close to President Obama, with full White House support, to go to Cuba and negotiate Alan Gross’s release.

Significantly, they called his captivity an obstacle to improvements in U.S.-Cuba relations, and urged both parties to work for his release.  In saying so, they parted company with the most ardent embargo supporters, who warn the Obama administration not to negotiate for his release.

As Senator Bob Menendez said this week in an interview with the New York Times “I’m not into negotiating for someone who is clearly a hostage of the Cuban regime.” Judy Gross correctly diagnosed the hardliner’s position as a surefire recipe for continuing his captivity for years.  “He is a pawn of these very radical right-wing Cuba haters, for lack of a better word, who don’t want to see any changes happen, even to get Alan home.”

Mrs. Gross pled for her husband’s release on humanitarian grounds, and demanded access by doctors for an independent examination of a mass on his shoulder that the family believes could be cancerous.  For its part, the Cuban government released this week the results of a biopsy conducted October 24th, and an examination by a physician who is also ordained as a Rabbi, who concluded that the growth is not cancerous.

Two weeks ago, attorneys for the Gross family filed a law suit against the U.S. government and his employer, the USAID contractor DAI, seeking $60 million in damages.  In the complaint available here, they concede that his activities were “to promote (a) successful democratic transition” in Cuba and that when he was at risk of detection by Cuban authorities, USAID failed to comply with provisions of the “Counterintelligence Manual” to save him before his arrest.

Mr. Gross knew of the dangers associated with his activities in Cuba, writing in one of the trip reports filed with his employer under the USAID contract, “In no uncertain terms, this is very risky business.”

In light of these facts, it is hard to understand why his legal representatives still argue that all he was doing in Cuba was trying to improve Internet access for the Jewish community.  This benign explanation was long ago overtaken by the facts.

Even so, it is a position that remains front and center in the U.S. State Department’s talking points.  Victoria Nuland, the department’s Spokesperson, responded to a reporter who asked about the Gross case, by saying:

But again, just to remind that this is a guy who’s been incarcerated for no reason for three years and ought to come home.

Alan Gross was given a 15-year prison term simply for the supposed crime of helping the Jewish community of Cuba communicate with the outside world.

Old tropes die hard, especially when the U.S. government decides we can’t handle the truth.  This failure to concede why Mr. Gross was arrested and convicted not only contributes to the lack of movement in his case, but is especially alarming now that we know the Obama administration is doubling down on the program that led to his arrest.

As Tracey Eaton reports in Along the Malecón, the U.S. government “The U.S. government has hired a former CIA agent,” named Daniel Gabriel, “to create and manage a team of at least 10 journalists in Cuba.”  Gabriel’s Linked In profile concludes with this heartfelt endorsement:

“Dan is one of those dream clients you get once in a blue moon: totally risk tolerant, possessed of a voracious appetite for learning, and the drive to turn pontification into action.”

We could not think of a clearer case for why these programs need to end.

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The Paralysis of Analysis and the Politics of Denial

November 16, 2012

As we predicted last week, the United Nations General Assembly approved a resolution condemning the U.S. embargo of Cuba.  This was not, we confess, a very difficult prediction to make, since the U.N. has made this statement for twenty years.  We also predict the U.N. will keep on doing so until the policy changes. In the meanwhile, we enjoyed The Nation’s stellar description of the vote saying the resolution was adopted by a “thumping majority.”  That was good writing.

Here’s something, however, we didn’t anticipate; namely, that people would still be pouring over the presidential election vote in Florida and, at this late date, arguing over what it means.  These are not unconnected events.

Ian Williams, a senior analyst with Foreign Policy in Focus put it this way:

“The UN vote on the Cuba embargo reminds us yet again that U.S. foreign policy is concocted in a bubble detached from the real world, where most nations recognize that the boycott is designed to pander to the most reactionary Cuban émigrés in Florida.”

This is why there is a lot of hand-wringing and hand-waving over who exactly won the Cuban American vote in Florida.  We know that President Obama won the Latino vote nationally, won Florida and, as former U.S. Senator George LeMieux put it, “it even appears that President Obama may have won the Cuban vote in Florida, a previously unimaginable result.”  His thinking was in line with Miami Democratic pollster Bendixen & Amandi International whose exit polls showed Mr. Obama won the Cuban vote, 51-49 percent over Romney.

The Miami Herald also reported, “Obama actually won Cuban-Americans who voted on Election Day itself, taking 53% of their vote compared to 47 percent for Republican Mitt Romney.”  But the Herald, like others, goes on to say that, in the end, “Romney narrowly carried Cuban-Americans, 52-48 percent, which is a decrease for Republicans when compared to 2008.”  Anyhow, as ABC News concluded, “Cuban-Americans (are) No Longer a Sure Bet for the GOP.”

Mauricio Claver-Carone, who runs the Cuba Democracy Public Advocacy Corp., and supported Governor Romney, said these historically high defections were the fault of Paul Ryan, Mr. Romney’s vice presidential nominee, who was against the embargo before he was for it.  That, he said, “created skepticism among some Cuban-Americans and gave them (Democrats) an opening to make a case on economic and social issues.”

This is actually quite clever.  Think about what Mr. Claver-Carone is arguing:  the biggest supporters of a hardline policy, who didn’t think the Romney ticket was hardline enough, voted instead for the candidate Mr. Claver-Carone had previously said was guilty of “unilateral appeasement” of the Castro government.

Will this mean anything for Cuba policy going forward?  It should. If the Cuban-American community that has insisted that the U.S. stick with the embargo policy for five decades is now divided, it will be exposed as a political façade, a Potemkin village, freeing the political system at last to the change the policy.

Back to Mr. Williams:  “Obama, embarking on a second term, and winning Florida despite the Cuban vote, owes them nothing. He should use his influence to call off the embargo and allow free travel to and from Cuba.”

That is an idea that would win a thumping majority not just in the U.N. but throughout our country as well.

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On Next Week’s Vote (the U.N.) and Last Week’s Vote (the U.S.)

November 9, 2012

On November 13th, the U.N. General Assembly will vote on a resolution titled the “Necessity of ending the economic, commercial and financial embargo imposed by the United States of America against Cuba.”

The General Assembly has voted against U.S. policy for twenty straight years.  In 2011, the resolution passed by 186 in favor versus 2 against (Israel and the U.S.), with 3 abstentions (Micronesia, Marshall Islands and Palau).

We can guarantee you two things about next week’s vote:  The resolution will pass in a landslide, and it will attract little notice in the U.S., which is a disgrace.

U.S. sanctions against Cuba are among the most restrictive our government imposes against any nation. With few exceptions (limited legal travel, some agriculture sales, and highly regulated medical trade) U.S. citizens and corporations are prevented by the embargo from buying or selling into the Cuban market.

The embargo is unilateral.  No one willingly joins the U.S. in enforcing it.  But our sanctions exert pressure on countries that trade with Cuba, foreign companies that do business in Cuba, the international financial system, and humanitarian agencies to try and stop the flow of money, commerce, aid, technology, spare parts, and the like to Cuba.  In doing so, we are trying to run the foreign policies of every state in the world community and they resent it. That’s the point of the U.N. vote; they get to say so.

Next Tuesday, here’s just a brief list of who will line up to vote their scorn of U.S. policy: Australia, Brazil, China, the entire European Union, all the governments in Latin America and the Caribbean, India, Japan, Russia, and South Africa, even the Vatican.

Here, we must point out:  when Pope Benedict the XVI visited Cuba this year, he didn’t have to apply to the U.S. Treasury Department for a license to travel before he went.  Perhaps the Holy See regards U.S. sanctions as a moral issue.

It’s that, and more.  U.S. policy is cruel to Cubans.  It imposes arbitrary limits on our freedom to travel.  It hurts U.S. industries that could do business on the island.  It thwarts direct U.S. engagement with Cuba’s government on security and environmental issues.  And, it’s failed to achieve what the Cold Warriors who designed it intended; namely, to replace Cuba’s political and economic system with parts designed in Washington and installed in Havana.

Finally, the embargo hurts us in Latin America and the world.  So, after twenty years of getting a black eye at the U.N., isn’t it time to blink?  Or think?

Carlos Iglesias, a U.S. Navy Commander and a candidate for a Master’s Degree at the Army War College, believes that the time has arrived.  His thesis, submitted last month, said this about the “longstanding blowback” against the policy globally and concludes it isn’t worth the cost:

“…decades-long sanctions against the island have netted few if any national objectives, all the while depleting substantial national soft power. The cost-benefit analysis to U.S. national foreign policy will remain exceedingly unfavorable, if not outright counter-productive.”

We’re hopeful President Obama understands this intellectually.  Now, he can take command politically.  He’s been reelected to a second term.  He won Florida, and scored an unprecedented victory winning a majority of the Cuban-American vote.  There is no longer any justification for him to remain tethered to this failed policy.

He’s still stuck with much the same Congress, a lagging indicator, so often steps behind public opinion.  But after his victory, the president is free – not to be a laggard but a leader.  He can use his executive authority to start dismantling sanctions first imposed on Cuba before he was born and, by doing so, get our national interest and the international community into alignment.

That’s the right thing to do.

Who knows?  Maybe Rep. Paul Ryan will return to his original pro-travel, pro-trade position that he adopted at the start of his career in Congress, since the campaign is behind him, too.

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Cuba and the Hurricane

November 2, 2012

As the U.S. tries to recover from the impact of Hurricane Sandy on our shores, Cuba is facing an immense humanitarian tragedy, with long-term implications for its economy, food security, and its future.

Sandy hit Cuba last Thursday, October 25th, staggering the Eastern side of the island with the knock-out punch of a Category 2 hurricane.  Winds gusted in excess of 108 miles per hour.  According to preliminary estimates, the storm killed 11 Cubans and caused more than $2 billion in losses.

The UN said the storm damaged at least 180,000 homes, affecting more than one million people, and ruined crops across nearly a quarter-million acres of farmland.  State-run media said damage to homes in the provinces of Santiago and Holguin was actually higher.

The Associated Press reported that Santiago de Cuba, the island’s second largest city, most directly affected by Hurricane Sandy, lost power and running water for days.  The wire service quoted reports in the Communist party newspaper Granma of “severe damage to housing, economic activity, fundamental public services and institutions of education, health and culture.”

“The reality is much worse than what you can see in the pictures or on TV,” said President Raúl Castro,  who witnessed the storm’s aftermath.  “Santiago is a moving sight,” he said, “it looks like a bombed city.”

The scope and size of the tragedy is so broad, that Cuba postponed a nationwide military drill, The Bastion 2012 Exercise, until the first half of 2013.

Instead, President Castro said “what was needed now was to ‘make a detailed plan for the recovery of the regions (affected by the hurricane) and make a collection of all the resources they may need’.”

News accounts portray utter devastation.  Earlier this week, one Cuban wrote “The sight of women, elderly individuals and children sifting through debris to salvage whatever was left of their belongings was simply heartbreaking.”

In an interview with AP, Berta Serguera, an 82-year-old retiree said, “It’s indescribable.  The trees have been shredded as if with a saw. My mango only has a few branches left, and they look like they were shaved.”

Cuba, which already buys over 80 percent of its food from suppliers abroad, is facing a food security nightmare.  According to the BBC, first Vice President, Jose Ramon Machado said one of the biggest problems facing the government was guaranteeing food supplies for the people in the affected areas in the coming months.

According to AFP, the United Nations is reporting “The toll on the farm sector will have major repercussions around the country.”  It added, “Sugar cane was the single hardest hit followed by plantain and bananas, vegetables and other basic crops” such as beans.

Reuters said the storm decimated the country’s coffee crop, leaving behind between “20 percent and 30 percent of the crop on the ground, damaged processing centers and roads and felled thousands of trees upon plantations as it pummeled the Sierra Maestra Mountains, where 92 percent of the crop is grown.”

Cubans accustomed to protections afforded by the nation’s storied civil defense system were reported to be shocked by the number of deaths, even though its procedures undoubtedly kept the death count from climbing higher.  At least, fifty-two were lost in nearby Haiti.

“This is one of the most severe hurricanes to hit Eastern Cuba. Despite very good preparedness on the part of Cuban authorities, people were  less prepared because the storm followed an unusual trajectory, and directly affected the city of Santiago de Cuba –which is not usually in the path of Caribbean hurricanes,” said Christina Polzot, CARE’s Representative  in Cuba. “The Cuban Government coordinated the evacuation of 343,230 people, many of which remain seeking shelter with extended family, which creates significant over-crowding in these homes.

According to numerous reports, a recovery effort by Cuba’s government is underway.  Prensa Latin said brigades of engineers and builders from provinces throughout Cuba were making progress in recovering electricity and communications.  By Wednesday, “phones and electricity were gradually being restored with the help of workers brought in from other regions. In Holguin, 73 per cent of customers had the lights back on.”

In the meanwhile, when Santiago de Cuba was able to reopen its international airport on Tuesday, “one of the first arrivals was a Venezuelan aid flight carrying 14 tons of food,” and the government in Caracas announced that hundreds of tons more would be flown to Cuba as well as Haiti, also hard-hit by the storm.  Bolivia has committed to sending 120 tons of humanitarian aid, as well.

But, there is no minimizing what lies ahead for the Cuban people. “The secretary general of Caritas Cuba said it will take years for the eastern section of the country to recover from Hurricane Sandy.”

Crops can take years to recover and homes years more to rebuild.  And Cuba’s economy is very short of cash.

There is an unfortunate irony to this.  Four years ago, Cuba suffered devastating blows from storms named Gustav, Ike, and Paloma which inflicted $10 billion in damage to housing and agriculture.

In 2008, U.S. policy barred Cuban Americans from rushing to the island to offer solace and assistance to their families.  President Bush imposed a regulation limiting family travel and cutting down on the financial assistance Cubans living here could offer Cubans there.  And, of course, there was the embargo which meant that another generation of Cubans watched their powerful neighbor to the north do nothing while they suffered and more distant countries rushed to their aid.

The good news is that President Obama lowered the gates on family travel in 2009 and by changing the rules enable Cuban Americans to visit the island and provide financial support to their families without limit.

Now, members of Cuba’s opposition are urging the government to eliminate taxes and fees which they say could inhibit Cuba’s access to relief supplies. It is important to note that such customs duties are only levied on items sent from person to person. Lifting them temporarily could cause an influx of goods onto the black market to be sold at high prices to those in need. Conversely, donations sent through established organizations are not subject to duties and these resources will be distributed free of charge and in an orderly and prioritized fashion.

We’d like to see the U.S. government act. It should punch a hole in the embargo, for at least six months, and authorize the sale of emergency building materials to Cuba for home construction. This wouldn’t be charity or cost taxpayers a dime. Legislation to make this change has already been drafted.  In fact, it was introduced in 2008 by Representatives Delahunt (D-MA) and Flake (R-AZ) when Cuba was last pummeled by storms.  But, of course, it died in committee, while American policy makers pretended not to notice that Cubans were suffering.

A friend of ours said at the time, “the test for all governments in a situation like this is to put politics aside and to do what has to be done in every possible way to help people.”

We don’t have to wait for the White House or the Congress to recover their conscience.  We can make donations to Cuba ourselves.  It’s time for US to be good Samaritans.

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