If Cuba policy were a holiday call center

December 21, 2012

If Cuba policy were a holiday call center, the recording on your phone would be saying, “The next available customer representative will assist you in 50 years.”

So, who can you reach when things just aren’t right?

Who do you call when Cuba releases political prisoners, removes restrictions on its citizens to travel, opens up its private sector so that entrepreneurs can lead more prosperous, independent lives, but your government moves the goal posts and signals that just because Cuba met its last set of demands that won’t stop the U.S. imposing new hurdles rather than changing the policy?

Who do you call when Cuba is brokering the peace process between Colombia and the FARC, but the U.S. government continues to insist that Cuba belongs on the State Sponsors of Terror list because it allows representatives of the FARC to live in Cuba?

Who do you call when every other country in the Hemisphere says we must welcome Cuba into the next Summit of the Americas or that meeting isn’t going to happen, and the State Department – in charge, after all, of relationships with our allies in the region –pretends that call for action never happened?

Who do you call when several of the most respected Cuban scholars get turned down for visas to attend the Latin America Studies Association conference for being threats to national security, when they’ve been invited into the U.S. on multiple occasions by the same agency denying entry?

Who do you call when taxpayer money subsidizes slimy attacks against Cuba’s Catholic Cardinal written by an executive of Radio/TV Marti when the church in Cuba is fighting for the same values that our government says it is upholding with its policy?

Who do you call if you’re Chuck Hagel, an apparent candidate for Secretary of Defense, when you’re getting trashed for thinking outside the box on foreign policy issues from the Middle East to the U.S. embargo of Cuba (and he hears mostly crickets from the White House)?

Who do you call if you facilitate legal travel to Cuba, as the President tried to encourage with his reforms last year, but another arm of the U.S. government is freezing payments and menacing Internet companies who service your website and email?

These are only a few of our hang-ups from the last twelve months.

As we have lamented – and admitted – before, the administration never accorded Cuba (or Latin America) policy a terribly high priority, and it has its hands full right now taking on the lobbies that are fighting progress on our economy and on gun safety.  We get that.

The president already has ample executive authority to make changes–as common place as making it easier to sell food to Cuba, and as big as removing Cuba from the State Sponsors of Terrorism List–that could go a long way toward disconnecting his policy from the Cold War and modernizing our approach to the circumstances that prevail now.

He just needs to answer the call of history.

If he did, that would be a great holiday gift to the American people and the Cuban people – who have been on hold for the better part of six decades.

We are taking next week off.  We look forward to bringing you the news about Cuba and U.S. policy in 2013.


The Cuba Central News Blast Team

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Advice and Dissent: What Happens on Cuba if John Kerry and Chuck Hagel Join Obama’s Cabinet?

December 14, 2012

The staff of the Center for Democracy in the Americas wishes to acknowledge the horrific gun tragedy that took place in Connecticut today, offer our condolences to the families affected by the violence, and remember that this is the eighth mass shooting that we have experienced in the U.S. this year. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence offers a petition here and an opportunity to send a message to the families and victims affected by the school shooting today.

Dear Friends:

Days ago, the future of Cuba policy in President Obama’s second term seemed predictable.

In his first term, Latin America never rose to his priority list.  At her confirmation hearings, Hillary Clinton promised the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that she and the president were prepared to “seize the opportunities in Latin America,” but they never did.

After repealing all restrictions on family travel, opening categories of People-to-People travel, and restarting migration talks, progress on engagement was thwarted by the imprisonment of Alan Gross and the administration’s reluctance to negotiate directly with Cuba for his release.

Following the election, the president was said to be close to appointing Susan Rice, his U.N. Ambassador, to be Secretary of State – she once told the United Nations that U.S. sanctions were not the cause of deprivation among the Cuban people – but her candidacy was devoured by opponents on issues ranging from the tragedy in Benghazi to the contents of her investment portfolio, and she never arrived at the point of being nominated or given close to a fair hearing.

On the heels of her misfortune, things could get interesting.  If the speculation now is accurate, President Obama may appoint Senator John Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as Secretary of State and former Senator Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense.  By doing so, the president would bring into his security cabinet two seasoned figures with long histories as Cuba policy reformers and simultaneously place the Foreign Relations Committee in the hands of some of the coldest of the Cold Warriors in Congress.

Kerry, a steadfast opponent of U.S. intervention in Latin America since his election in 1984, has been consistently smart on Cuba.  He supported travel rights not just for Cuban Americans but for all Americans.  He would not give the Obama administration a blank check to run the USAID regime change programs in Cuba and held up funding when he could.  He was a reliable skeptic of the millions spent on the broadcast propaganda arms – Radio and TV Martí – and of the consultants and bureaucrats who created programming that most Cubans don’t see, hear, or care much about.

Chuck Hagel served two terms in the Senate and called our policy toward Cuba “senseless.”  When former President Jimmy Carter visited the island in 2002, he was the only Member of Congress Carter considered to ask to join his delegation, but Hagel stayed in Washington to participate in a Senate debate on trade.  In 2001, he cosponsored legislation to open the Cuban market further for sales of food and medicine and repeal restrictions on travel.

If these two men are nominated and confirmed, this doesn’t mean President Obama will elevate Cuba as a foreign policy priority.  But it does mean that seasoned figures who urged the country to dump its Cold War baggage and normalize relations would be at the table when critical strategic decisions are made.

However, if Kerry is chosen, he will most likely be sworn in as a witness by Senator Bob Menendez, the presumptive chairman of a vastly changed Senate Foreign Relations Committee.   Menendez, a Democrat but a dissenter on liberalization, promised to filibuster “any bill that in any way lifts or lessens the travel ban on Cuba.”  He joined forces with Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) in a failed effort to stop the Obama people-to-people travel reforms in 2011.   He threatened the budget of the OAS after it opened the door to Cuba rejoining its membership.   He even told the New York Times he would prefer to leave Alan Gross in prison, because “I’m not into negotiating for someone who is clearly a hostage of the Cuban regime.”

Gone from the ranks of Republicans will be Senator Richard Lugar, a forward-leaning statesman whose report, “Changing Cuba Policy – In the United States National Interest,” is still filled with useful policy ideas that were offered to the Obama team, many never adopted, when it was published in 2009.  Instead, Kerry would be staring up at the scowling faces of Senators like John McCain and Marco Rubio, who could try and use the hearing to create a record against reform.  So long as Kerry has sound instructions from the top, he will do what is needed to avoid being boxed in.

This shouldn’t be hard.  In an election that took place some five weeks ago, President Obama faced an opponent, endorsed by Florida’s Cuban American delegation in Congress, and they could not deliver the Cuban vote, Miami-Dade, or the state, much less the country, to Governor Romney. Politically, Mr. Obama owes the hardliners nothing, and can use his second term to establish a legacy on Cuba.  Should he have ears to hear it, he could have Secretaries of State and Defense to advise him on how it could be done.

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Women at Work in Cuba

December 7, 2012

Hello Friends,

This is Lisa writing from the Cuba Central team. This past week, Sarah Stephens, CDA’s executive director, and I  took a delegation of 22 women on a people-to-people trip to Cuba.  We worked in collaboration with the Women Donors Network, an organization of philanthropists from across the U.S. Our goal was to introduce them to some of our closest friends in Cuba – the people with whom we have been closely engaged on our latest report: “Women’s Work: Gender Equality in Cuba and the Role of Women in Building Cuba’s Future.”

This publication focuses on Cuban women and the issues of gender equality on the island; the real, measurable progress for women and children in areas like health, education, and legal rights, and the gap that still exists between their aspirations for equality and the reality of their everyday lives.

The book will be published at the beginning of next year (watch this space for news!). On one of our final evenings in Cuba, we held a celebration to mark the completion of the book, which brought together many of the women who have contributed to this project over the past several years. They included:

Antonia Díaz, a professor who leads the CUAM (Catedras Universitarias del Adulto Mayor), a program run through universities, which provides continuing education courses for the elderly. Antonia works to promote healthy, active lifestyles for the elderly, and to increase respect and awareness about “abuelidad,” which I can only translate as “grandparenthood”. Antonia proudly introduces herself as a very happy 91 year old.

Barbara Perez Casanova, a small business owner, or cuentapropista. In October 2010, Barbara, 26, was among the first to apply for a license to work in the private sector after its opening to new categories of business.  She runs a small storefront in a self-employment zone, selling shoes and clothing. Barbara says that cuentapropistas are still facing an uphill battle, as they deal with inspectors, high taxes, and difficulties in acquiring the products to sell. However, she enjoys the independence that comes with running her own business, and has been able to save up some money to invest in fixing up her house.

Magia López, a rapper in the group Duo Obsesíon, and Sandra Álvarez, psychiatrist and specialist in race and gender issues. Magia and Sandra both live in the community of Regla, across the bay from Havana. Regla is a working-class, predominantly Afro-Cuban neighborhood. Magia and Sandra both work to raise awareness of societal problems relating to race and gender – they see their criticisms as essential to improving their country. Sandra maintains a blog, entitled “Negra cubana tenía que ser” (It had to have been a black Cuban woman), where she addresses these issues openly. Magia uses hip hop music as her medium, like in this song, “Los Pelos,” which expresses pride for her natural hair. We also highly recommend this video, a rap song in homage to Cuban mothers, featuring Magia’s mother-in-law.

This trip was a true lesson in the power of human interaction. As trip leaders, Sarah and I were consistently inspired by the interactions we saw taking place before us. They were a reminder of how much these women – from such seemingly different countries and situations – share in common.

What has been so often missing from the debate in our country about Cuba is our shared humanity. It is our hope that policymakers, academics, and advocates in our country are inspired by these women as well.

We arrived back in DC refreshed and eager to continue our work, breaking down the barriers that have been imposed between the people of our two countries. We appreciate your accompaniment and continued support in the work that we do.

Antonia Diaz

Antonia Díaz, speaking at CDA’s book celebration


Members of our delegation with new friends in Cienfuegos


Our delegation in Regla with Sandra Álvarez and some of our other hosts

Lisa Ndecky Llanos
Program Manager
Center for Democracy in the Americas

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