Inauguration Week: An emerging vision of a “new normal”

January 25, 2013

From Havana to Washington, there was a sustained glimpse of what a “new normal” could look like in the U.S.-Cuba relationship.

President Obama’s inauguration was broadcast live in Cuba, on Educational Channel 2, Progreso Semanal reports, which carries the Telesur  network live.

This is pretty remarkable stuff.  The U.S. didn’t need to send a subcontractor with a flash drive to enter Cuba on a tourist visa to distribute “democracy unfiltered,” hand to hand, for secret viewing in the homes and offices of Cubans fortunate enough to have access to a computer.

Instead, Cubans could watch television and see Senator Lamar Alexander quote Alex Haley, “Find the good and praise it,” and herald election practices in the U.S., “There is no mob, no coup, no insurrection.”

Or see Richard Blanco, “A child of Cuban exiles raised in Miami,” as the Miami Herald reported, read his Inaugural poem and make history, as the first Latino, Cuban-American, and openly-gay man to serve in this capacity in U.S. history.

Or listen to Rev. Luis Leon, an Operation Pedro Pan veteran, a Cuban-born American, invoke Martin Luther King (on the U.S. national holiday that honors his memory), asking blessings for the citizens “of a beloved community, loving you and our neighbors as ourselves.”

And, of course, see the President of the United States remind all within earshot:

“That all men are created equal.  That they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, and among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Today we continue a never ending journey to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time. For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they’ve never been self-executing. That while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by his people here on earth.”

Later, perhaps more prosaically but no less importantly, Cubans saw José Contreras, the powerful right-hander who pitched for the Vegueros of his native Pinar del Río, and defected to the U.S. to play baseball in the major leagues a decade ago, return to Cuba and visit his sick mother, thanks to their nation’s new, more permissive immigration law.

What a welcome respite.  These developments took place without attracting much attention in Washington – no derisive tweets from hardliners in Congress about Cubans “defecting” to the Obama administration, no “wait and see” platitudes from the State Department podium.  Perhaps, the city was so preoccupied with itself, and the ceremonial transition, that no one was in the mood to taunt “our neighbors.” But, it also could be indicative of progress toward a new normal, here and in Cuba.

Even in Senator John Kerry’s hearing to be Secretary of State – when confirmations so often are cauldrons of controversy where Senators press nominees to take positions in line with their interests against those of the president who selected them – Cuba at first wasn’t even on the table.

No mention of Cuba by Senator Marco Rubio, who proposed grounding all flights to Cuba in 2011, but “focused his questioning of Kerry on North Korea, Syria, the Middle East and China”; no efforts to get Mr. Kerry to renounce negotiations for the release of Alan Gross; only a generic mention of “democracy promotion” programs by acting Chairman Robert Menendez.

But briefly, a reminder of the old ways surfaced later in the Kerry hearing.

Jeff Flake, recently elected to the Senate, after service in the U.S. House as a champion of the freedom to travel to Cuba, angered Senator Menendez by affirming his faith in the constitutional right of Americans to travel to Cuba, joking that he’d force “the Castro brothers” to deal with spring break, and urging Mr. Kerry as Secretary of State to continue liberalizing U.S. travel policies and finding innovative approaches to deal with changes in Cuba; a policy that honors the pursuit of happiness and freedom, as written in the Declaration of 1776 and given voice in the Inauguration of 2013.

That, finally, was too much for the hardliners.  And so a beat-down of Senator Flake commenced with Senator Menendez and the usual suspects.  But, Senator Flake has told that joke before, heard the howling before, and emerged undaunted before.

This is the new normal – with Senator Flake serving as a burr under Bob Menendez’s saddle as they debate Cuba together on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; with Richard Blanco, Luis Leon, José Contreras, John Kerry, and President Obama representing the future – as a new approach for engaging with Cuba and Cubans is busy being born.

IN CUBA

Cuba performing quality tests of high speed fiber-optic cable

Cuba’s state telecommunications firm ETECSA has confirmed that the fiber-optic cable connecting Cuba to Venezuela is currently undergoing quality testing for its Internet-trafficking capabilities. An official statement said that the cable has been in use primarily for international phone calls since August 2012, and that the current Internet tests began on January 10.

Completed in February 2011, ALBA-1 reportedly possesses the capability to increase Internet speeds on the island by up to 3,000, but reports of mismanagement involving the project apparently halted progress. The official statement says that “When the testing process ends, the activation of the cable will not mean that access possibilities will automatically multiply.” The government has indicated that initially, the cable will be used to improve current connections, rather than to increase points of access to the Internet. Previously, Cuba’s Internet services functioned solely through satellite links.

Authorities confirm reappearance of cholera in Bayamo, hospitals to shorten visiting hours

Health authorities confirmed on Thursday that cholera has reappeared in the eastern city of Bayamo, reports Café Fuerte. Doctor Ana María Batista González of the Center for Hygiene and Epidemiology said that there have been four confirmed and 44 suspected cases at a local hospital.

At least 51 cases of cholera were confirmed in Havana earlier this month, though a January 15 official statement said that the outbreak was in the eradication phase. In light of recent cholera and dengue outbreaks, the Ministry of Public Health has announced that hospitals will have limited visitation hours beginning January 30th, reports Havana Times.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Ecuador implements new travel law, 26 Cubans repatriated

Ecuadorian officials repatriated 26 Cubans who arrived at the International Airport in Quito without a letter of invitation on Monday, according to Café Fuerte and Havana Times. CDA reported last week that the government of Ecuador was implementing a new law on January 21 requiring Cuban citizens entering Ecuador to hold a letter of invitation notarized by the Ecuadorian Consulate. The 26 Cubans argued that they boarded their flight before the new law took effect that same day. They returned to Cuba 12 hours after they arrived in Ecuador. Before the reversal in policy, Ecuador was one of the few countries in the region that allowed Cubans to visit without a visa after dropping the visa requirement in 2008.

U.S. – CUBA RELATIONS

Senator Kerry faces no Cuba questions; Senator Flake emerges as strong voice on free travel

Senator John Kerry (MA) faced no direct questions regarding Cuba in his confirmation hearing for Secretary of State on Thursday, despite the presence of Committee members Senator Menendez (NJ), the acting chairman, and Senator Rubio (FL), both hardliners on the issue.  Newly-elected Senator Jeff Flake (AZ), who had a strong anti-embargo record as a U.S. Representative, made his first statement on Cuba as a Senator, encouraging Kerry to use his presumptive position as Secretary of State to work with President Obama to continue to loosen travel restrictions and allow further engagement between the Cubans and Americans.

Sen. Flake stated, “With regard to Cuba…the best way to foster change and progress toward democracy is to allow travel, free travel of Americans, to let them go as they wish. I don’t think that that’s a weakness or any capitulation at all.” Sen. Flake ruffled the feathers of some of his Cold Warrior colleagues when he went on to joke, “I’ve often felt that if we want a real get-tough policy with the Castro brothers, we should force them to deal with spring break once or twice.”

Senator Marco Rubio, surprisingly, stayed silent on Cuba, and only brought up Latin America to challenge the validity of recent elections in Nicaragua and question whether a coup really took place in Honduras in 2009.  Cuba received no further mention until Senator Robert Menendez, acting as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, made his closing remarks lecturing Senator Flake, leaving no room for response.

In response to a question from Sen. Menendez about prospects for cooperation with Latin America during President Obama’s second term, Sen. Kerry noted that although continued cooperation is likely with Brazil and Colombia, little cooperation has occurred with Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador. Sen. Kerry remarked that “depending on what happens in Venezuela, there could be an opportunity for a transition there.” Elias Jaua, Venezuela’s Foreign Minister, stated in response that Venezuela’s government regrets Kerry’s comment, and that Venezuela hopes to engage in relations of “mutual respect” with the U.S.

Assistant U.S. Secretary of State meets with new Chief of the Cuban Interests Section

Roberta Jacobson, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs met Wednesday with José Cabañas, the new Chief of the Cuban Interests Section, at the Department of State, reports Café Fuerte. The meeting represented Washington’s first diplomatic gesture towards Cuba in Obama’s second term. No comments were made about the contents of their meeting.

Cuban pitcher José Contreras becomes first athlete to return to Cuba under new immigration law

Major League Baseball pitcher José Ariel Contreras Camejo became the first Cuban athlete to return to Cuba under the new immigration law on Wednesday, report NBC News and Café Fuerte. The new law, adopted on January 14th, allows Cubans who emigrated without authorization to make temporary visits to the island if they have spent 8 years outside of the country. Contreras defected through Mexico in 2002 and returned this week in order to visit his family. Contreras stated that he did not have problems entering the country.

Around the Region

U.S. Once Again Gives Cold Shoulder to Salvadoran Gang Truce, Linda Garrett, Center for Democracy in the Americas

CDA El Salvador Analyst Linda Garrett responds to the U.S. State Department’s recent travel warning on El Salvador: “The timing of the January 23rd travel warning is curious. No such warnings were issued during the height of the violence in 2010 and 2011. The past year, 2012 was the least violent since 2003. The ‘Security Message for U.S. Citizens’ acknowledges that the truce ‘contributed to a decline in the homicide rate’ but questions its sustainability and says it has had ‘little impact’ on other crimes.”

If you would like to receive CDA’s Monthly El Salvador Updates, contact: ElSalvadorUpdate@democracyinamericas.org

Recommended Reading

Seven Actions Obama Should Take on Cuba Now, Peter Kornbluh, The Nation

Peter Kornbluh makes the case for seven policies that the second Obama Administration can implement to leave a legacy of sensible policy toward Cuba: remove Cuba from the U.S. State Sponsors of Terrorism list; end the economic and commercial sanctions that accompany the terror list designation; order the arrest of Luis Posada Carriles; expand general licensing for Cuba travel; change the “Cuban Democracy and Contingency Planning” section of the Helms-Burton Act; engage in bilateral dialogue in areas of mutual interest; and commute the sentences of the “Cuban Five.”

Memo to President Obama: Cuba has extended the olive branch, shouldn’t the U.S.?, Albor Ruiz, New York Daily News

Albor Ruiz addresses the lack of response from the Obama administration to the recent easing of travel restrictions for Cuba’s citizens. The piece quotes CDA Executive Director Sarah Stephens, who says: “After Cuba released scores of political prisoners following talks with the Catholic Church; after the Castro government implemented the most significant changes in its economic model in six decades; after Colombia turned to Cuba to help it broker peace talks with the FARC, U.S. policy remains in an official state of denial that its goals are being met.”

Alan Gross and his descent into hell, Tracey Eaton, Along the Malecon

Tracey Eaton continues his coverage of U.S. funding for “democracy promotion” programs and the Alan Gross case, further detailing the circumstances around Gross’ arrest and the nature of his work in Cuba.  We reported on the first installment last week.

Is the Cuban Adjustment Act in play?, Phil Peters, The Cuban Triangle

Phil Peters asks if the Cuban Adjustment Act will, in fact, be open for discussion during the upcoming U.S. debate on comprehensive immigration reform.  But, Peters questions statements made by Senator Marco Rubio and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen that ground their arguments for a change in the Cuban Adjustment Act in the idea that all Cubans who arrive in the United States claim persecution and therefore should not be returning to Cuba to visit their families. Peters points out that most Cubans who remain in the U.S. under the Cuban Adjustment Act do not state a claim to persecution, as refugees or asylees must do.

Is Obama Acting Pragmatically in the Alan Gross Case?, Arturo López-Levy, Foreign Policy in Focus

Arturo López-Levy analyzes how the Obama administration has handled the case of former USAID contractor Alan Gross: “Obama’s legacy in the hemisphere will suffer if he wastes his second term flexibility to improve U.S.-Cuba relations because of unrealistic expectations. Incidentally, the probability of Gross’ release will improve as general relations do.”

Talking to Cuba, Julia E. Sweig interviewed by Robert McMahon, Council on Foreign Relations

Robert McMahon interviews Julia E. Sweig, Director for Latin American Studies for the Council on Foreign Relations. Sweig by answering a series of questions analyzes Cuba’s recent reforms especially the new travel laws. She argues that the United States should initiate a new dialogue with Cuba and work on solving the many issues that prevent normalization of relations between the two countries.

The Rivers Internship Blog, Emma Stodder, Center for Democracy in the Americas

Emma Stodder, CDA’s first Stephen M. Rivers Intern, will be keeping a blog on her experiences working at the Center, and posting her reflections on issues concerning U.S.-Latin America relations.

Stephen Rivers, who had a storied career as an advisor to César Chávez and the United Farm Workers Union, a political advisor to the Kennedy family, and a publicist for celebrities including Jane Fonda and Kevin Costner, devoted much of the last decade of his professional life to working for closer U.S.-Cuba relations by building bridges between the two countries’ cultural communities.

The internship was created by CDA in Rivers’ honor as a part of the organization’s 2012 annual event; contributions for the stipend were received from his long-time friends and colleagues including Maria Shriver, Norman Lear, Ricki Seidman, Greg Craig and Paul and Diane Begala. Emma will serve at CDA’s offices in Washington from January to July, 2013. Follow Emma here!

Recommended Viewing

Close Up: Cuba’s new love for the Union flag, Sarah Rainsford, BBC

Sarah Rainsford reports on the popularity of the U.K. flag in Cuba, and asks Cubans on the streets about their impressions of the trend.

Cuba: The Accidental Eden, Nature, PBS

PBS’ Nature showcases Cuba’s well-preserved biodiversity and how Cuba can act as a future model for ecotourism.

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This post will self-destruct in ten seconds. Good luck, readers.

January 18, 2013

In the 1960s, many of us in the U.S. never missed an episode of Mission Impossible, the weekly Cold War-era television drama, in which a top secret group of operatives were entrusted with undercover missions that put their lives at risk.  Their instructions were always accompanied by a message reminding them of the government’s plausible deniability:

As always, should you or any of your IM force be caught or killed, the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions.

In recent legal filings, the United States government and Development Alternatives Inc. – the customer and client operating the “democracy promotion” activities that led to Alan Gross being locked up in Cuba – appealed in a federal court to dismiss the $60 million lawsuit filed against them by Mr. Gross and his wife Judy.

The merits of the lawsuit do not matter, the government says; it is immune and can’t be held accountable for the injuries to Mr. Gross and his family, because they arise from his imprisonment in Cuba and there’s a “foreign country exception” under the Federal Torts Claim Act.

They may be right about the law, but what a Catch-22!  The program was designed to send people like Mr. Gross to a foreign country, Cuba, and engage in activities that put them at risk.  It also begs the question whether the legislators who wrote, funded, and obstinately insisted that its operations continue, as well as those in the State Department and USAID, ignored the risks since there was no legal recourse available to someone who got caught in Cuba doing what they sent him to do.

In connection with the court filings, new documents are now available – including a confidential memo from a 2008 USAID meeting as well as a written report by Alan Gross – that provide new details and greater clarity about the regime change program operated by USAID.

The documents – analyzed here by Tracey Eaton – also undermine the State Department’s cover story, repeated as recently as December 3, 2012, that “He was there in Cuba as an aid worker working with the Jewish diaspora community there, helping them to better communicate through the internet to the outside world.”

Instead, the documents make clear that the project was an “operational activity,” run at the end of the Bush administration, which had already put together five to seven transition plans for Cuba.  The administration was seeking “immediate results” from the program designed to spark reactions by change agents in Cuba who were being given access to highly sensitive, high technology equipment.

Secrecy was at the heart of the project, starting with communications coming from Washington.  In the USAID memo, under a section marked “response to public inquiry,” there is a bold-faced note: “Nothing anywhere.  We must not post anything on our website or issue a press release on the awarded contract.” The memo says that “Official and contract communications demands (sic) careful wordmanship and crafty use of terms.  No reference whatsoever to the new media component.”

Stealth was particularly important for the operations in Cuba.  In September 2009, Mr. Gross reported that his activities were already supporting direct communications between “target communities” and the U.S.  At the same time, he was monitoring Cuban users of the equipment to see what websites they were accessing.  High technology equipment was brought in to make the activities more secure, but these also made the operation more dangerous.  He writes, “Discovery of BGAN usage for Internet access would be catastrophic.”

USAID admitted that “building this network is risky because of the security threats.”  It called for “creativity” in implementing the project “in the face of opposition from the Cuban state – one anchored in the past and resistant to change – while protecting the security of participants and change agents.”

His work was called a “pilot project.”  Mr. Gross was planning four more roundtrips to Cuba – and budgeted for more roundtrips to bring in more equipment –to expand the program in 2010.  But, then his plans changed.  His security was not protected.  He was arrested, convicted, and sentenced under Cuban law for activities the U.S. government and his employer knew in advance were risky, subject to detection, and illegal.  With the actions taken to dismiss the case, it appears that the Obama administration and DAI are washing their hands of him and leaving his fate entirely in the hands of Cuba’s government.

This is just fine with Senator Robert Menendez, the incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who fought to maximize spending under the “regime change” programs and who has already told the New York Times, “I’m not into negotiating for someone who is clearly a hostage of the Cuban regime.”

Small wonder that Judy Gross told R.M. Schneiderman of Foreign Affairs late last year, “I feel betrayed by the United States.”   Her government has disavowed responsibility for her husband’s actions and plight.

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Like Wishing Upon a Star: Most Travel Restrictions (On Cubans) Vanish Monday

January 11, 2013

Next week, when Cuba drops travel restrictions on most of its citizens, Ana Liliam Garcia, a 16-year-old, plans on chasing a dream:  “I would like to see Disneyland in the United States,” she told the Associated Press.  “I’ll be able to travel!”

You can argue whether this represents a triumph of American culture. But, these reforms really matter, and they ought to take the discussion about U.S. policy and Cuba to a different level.

Cuba’s government imposed travel restrictions on its citizens in the early 1960s as the country experienced a “brain drain” following the Revolution.  For decades, Cubans detested the limitations symbolized by the tarjeta blanca or white card, the exit permit they had to obtain through a costly and convoluted bureaucratic process.  This restriction on the right of Cubans to leave and return to their country has been a deep source of concern to the global human rights community and a predicate for U.S. criticism of Cuba’s system.

Last fall, President Raúl Castro’s government announced an overhaul of its migration laws which will take effect on Monday.  Beginning January 14th, Cubans will need only a visa and a valid passport to leave their country; the white card will vanish, fees will be reduced, and official permission to come and go will no longer be required for most Cubans.

Some obstacles – for military officers, top scientists, and highly prized athletes – will remain in place.  Dissidents are not likely to be free to come and go.  Of course, Cuba’s decision not to change everything is already an excuse among hardliners in the U.S. for saying that Cuba hasn’t changed anything.

But, as Reuters reports, the verdict among the people whose interests are most directly affected is clearly being rendered.  Hundreds of Cubans are waiting in long lines to apply for passports in advance of the reforms becoming effective. As one Cuban told NPR, “These measures that the government is taking are a good step. Our rights have been oppressed for too long, but Cuba is changing.”

We hope President Obama is paying attention.  He has undertaken incremental but worthwhile reforms in U.S. policy, while simultaneously denying that anything meaningful has been taking place in Cuba during his presidency.  After Cuba released scores of political prisoners following talks with the Catholic Church; after the Castro government implemented the most significant changes in its economic model in six decades; after Colombia turned to Cuba to help it broker peace talks with the FARC, U.S. policy remains in an official state of denial that its goals are being met.

Cuba did not initiate these sweeping travel reforms to elicit a positive reaction from the U.S.  It long ago wearied from the repetitive process of doing things it wanted to do – that the U.S. also wanted done – only to find that U.S. policy had adopted new demands.  It will be hard for them to imagine that this time will be any different.

But, is it really possible that President Obama will feel comfortable ignoring another tangible change in the Cuban reality and insist, as he has said about Cuba so often, “If we see positive movement then we will respond in a positive way.”  Especially now that Cubans will have more freedom to see the world than American citizens have to visit Cuba?

This time, it shouldn’t be that hard.  If Ana Liliam Garcia doesn’t have to wish upon a star to have her chance to see Disneyland, that’s a real change.  It merits a real response.

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To Ring in the New, we have to Wring out the Old way of Doing Things

January 4, 2013

At the beginning of 2013, there’s a lot of attention being paid to the precarious health of Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chavez, fighting his cancer in a Havana hospital.  While some of the analysis seems genuine and reality-based – see, for example, Caracas Connect here, Just the Facts here, and the New York Times here – there is also a lot of the same ghoulishness and immaturity that arises whenever the health of former President Fidel Castro appears uncertain.

Any idea of advancing the U.S.-Venezuela relationship, such as posting ambassadors in either country’s capital, appears to be captive to Mr. Chavez and his mortality.  It’s not just an odd, but also a self-defeating way to run relations with one of our most important trading partners in the region.  Worse, it’s based on a broken model (see the Helms-Burton prohibition on the U.S. government recognizing Cuba’s government until both Fidel and Raúl Castro have parted from the scene).

But this is all very much part of an enduring flaw of U.S. foreign policy; namely, its preoccupation with the identity of who is running a country and its subordination of things which matter more – like deciding what demonstrates our national character or what defines and realizes our national interest.

Consider, for example, the retirement of Harry Henry, age 82, and Luis La Rosa, age 79, who recently completed six-decades of service as Cuban nationals working at the Navy’s Guantanamo Air Base in Cuba.  As the Miami Herald reported, they left work in December after a celebration of their service, but with complete uncertainty about whether they would be paid by the U.S. government the pensions that they earned.

Today, the Herald reports that a solution was found, but those of us who pay taxes in the U.S. to support the Pentagon will not be told which public servant in the Department of Defense allowed his sense of character to prevail over his government’s ideological inflexibility in order to work with Cuba to find a solution and pay the pensioners what they are owed.

Or consider the news from the peace talks brokered by Cuba and other nations, conducted in Havana, between the government of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.  Earlier this week, the Associated Press reported that Colombia’s President Juan Miguel Santos “insisted” that the talks not be held in Colombia, but pressed the FARC to have the negotiations in Cuba “for security above all because it guaranteed confidentiality,” according to the brother of President Santos.

We don’t know whether the talks will succeed, but it forces us to wonder whether a public servant in the U.S. Department of State might be stricken with conscience and speak up before his ideologically inflexible government continues listing Cuba as a state sponsor of terror because it allows members of the FARC in Cuba.  Taking Cuba off the list, as a column in the Los Angeles Times said earlier this year, “would restore some degree of seriousness to the exercise…and pave the way for further counter-terrorism cooperation between [our two] countries,” important benefits for the national interest.

And, finally, consider the question, who is running our policy really?  In “Can Kerry make friends with Cuba?” Nick Miroff writes:

Regardless of Kerry’s record on Cuba policy in the Senate, analysts say he will face several obstacles to major change, not least of which will be the man likely to replace him as chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey), a Cuban American.

“On Latin America, in general, I think Kerry has a longer and broader vision,” said Robert Pastor, professor of international relations at American University. But when it comes to Cuba…changing US policy is not a high priority for him, but not changing US policy is the only priority for Bob Menendez,” Pastor said.

As a nation we begin the new year much as we left the old: with a policy that long-ago outlived any usefulness it offered during the Cold War, driven by personalities, and held captive by the medical conditions of leaders with whom our government disagrees, rather than being guided by what, in fact, is in the national interest and consistent with the national character of the U.S.

The alternative is what the editors of Bloomberg wrote on December 31st:

“We hope that the 51st year of the U.S. embargo against Cuba will be its last. Obama eased some restrictions in his first term — and he won half the Cuban-American vote in November. He can now encourage free-market advocates in Cuba by lifting sanctions that even most Cuban-Americans don’t think serve any purpose — the sooner the better, given the flood of Cuban émigrés that new travel freedoms may begin to unleash this month.”

Happy New Year.

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