Reality Check

The same day that a bipartisan Congressional delegation left Cuba, the Boston Globe triggered a brief and unsatisfactory debate when it reported that “High-level US diplomats have concluded that Cuba should no longer be designated a state sponsor of terrorism.”

That Cuba should be removed from the list has long been the view of authorities from the Council on Foreign Relations to anti-terrorist expert Richard Clarke.  It has been understood for years that the designation was at least out-of-date and a function of domestic politics rather than terrorism policy or reason.  When Cuba was revealed as a broker of the peace process between the government of Colombia and the FARC – after years of being listed as a state sponsor for “supporting” the FARC – it was obvious that the next step was delisting.

This would be in accordance with U.S. law which says, as ABC News pointed out, “in order for any country to be designated as a state sponsor of terrorism, the Secretary of State must determine that the government of that country has repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism,” a finding that our government cannot make regarding Cuba.

But the bodyguard surrounding the status quo moved quickly to discredit the notion that U.S. policy would undergo any change.  Leave it to the State Department to say, “Not so fast.”  In the words of spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, “This Department has no current plans to remove Cuba from the state sponsor of terrorism list.”

Others went further.  As Professor Greg Weeks posted this week, José Cárdenas, a former senior U.S. official, argued in an op-ed piece, that while Cuba is no longer supporting terrorism, it should remain on the list of state anyway.  Weeks called this “pretty much the definition of moving goal posts.”

This is our great problem.  U.S. policy is based on the premise that Cuba must capitulate unilaterally to our demand that it reshape its political system to our liking, or U.S. sanctions will remain in place.  Consequently, when Havana changes the facts on the ground that fall short of that goal, Washington cannot consider them consequential.

No matter that, as The Economist reported, “Raúl Castro has allowed Cubans to buy cars and homes, to lease farmland and to set up small businesses.” Or, “Last year he scrapped curbs on foreign travel.”

No matter that President Raúl Castro, as we reported two weeks ago, has announced that he will abide by the term limits he put into place, or that a far younger man, Miguel Díaz-Canel, apparently less charismatic and unrelated to the Castro family, is being groomed to succeed him.  A Cuban government no longer run by a member of the family is a key goal of U.S. policy, but this development, too, cannot be acknowledged.

Once Raúl Castro made his announcement, as the Miami Herald reported, the maximalists simply moved the goal posts to other demands.

Forget the Castros, said Mauricio Claver-Carone, director of the pro-sanctions U.S. Cuba Democracy lobby, “The most important conditions in Helms-Burton are the legalization of opposition parties, independent media, the dismantling of the State Security apparatus and free and fair elections.” Or as Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said, “(T)he real change in Cuba involves much more than the Castro brothers… The whole system crafted by the Castro brothers is corrupt and must be totally replaced.”

Happily, policymakers who actually take the trouble to visit Cuba, and talk to the Cubans, are more grounded in reality.  As Senator Pat Leahy, leader of the delegation which met with President Castro, Alan Gross, and others, said on network television upon his return, “I think the worst thing that can happen is if we stay either in our country or in their country in this 1960s, 1970s Cold War mentality.  We’re a different century now.”

Cuba has made clear over the last, oh five or six decades its system is not up for negotiation. Thus, the administration must decide whether to be with the maximalists, who argue against the evidence that nothing in Cuba has changed, because everything in Cuba hasn’t changed, or switch to a reality-based policy that takes into consideration developments that actually occur, on issues from terrorism to who is being positioned to run the country, and then respond accordingly.

We’d like to think that Rep. Jim McGovern, who joined Leahy in Cuba, was on to something when he told Nick Miroff of the Global Post, “I feel change is in the air.  To me, this is the moment. We have President Obama, Secretary of State Kerry, and my hope is that they will take some risks and end this last relic of the Cold War.”

That would be nice.

Coming Soon: “Women’s Work: Gender Equality in Cuba and the Role of Women Building Cuba’s Future”

On March 6th, the Center for Democracy in the Americas will release the results of a two-year study on the status of women and gender equality in Cuba.  This week, we have been posting quotes from women we interviewed, as well as photos and other information, on our Facebook page and on Twitter.  Be sure to follow us on Twitter and like our Facebook page – we’ll continue posting updates leading up the official release!


Raúl Castro to retire in 2018; Miguel Díaz-Canel tapped as likely successor

Cuba’s President Raúl Castro announced Sunday that he will retire upon completion of his second five-year term in 2018, while Miguel Díaz-Canel ascended to the position of First Vice President, reports the Associated Press. In his speech marking the closing of the first meeting of the newly-elected National Assembly, President Castro stated that the selection of Díaz-Canel as First Vice President “represents a definitive step in the configuration of the future leadership of the nation through the gradual and orderly transfer of key roles to new generations,” reports the AP.

The 52-year-old Díaz-Canel replaces 81 year-old Jose Ramón Machado Ventura, and is the first member of a generation born after the Revolution to be in the number two seat. In his speech, President Castro also called for codifying a two-term maximum in top positions, as well as age limits, to be added to the Cuban Constitution, without indicating what a maximum age might be.

Miguel Díaz-Canel rose to his current position over the course of 30 years. After training as an electrical engineer, he began his political career in his home province of Villa Clara, where he served as party chief for ten years, reports the Associated Press.

According to the Miami Herald, he is respected as a “smart manager and personable communicator.” One Cuban journalist in Miami who used to work with Díaz-Canel said he “won the respect of the people in the province” of Villa Clara, while another former colleague said that he “was something of an ideologue, but he was smart and you could talk to him.” He was known for riding his bike around town in Villa Clara, though he was eventually banned from doing so for “security reasons.”

Díaz-Canel later served as party chief in the province of Holguín for six years, before becoming the Minister of Higher Education. In 2003, Díaz-Canel became the youngest member ever serve in the Politburo of the Cuban Communist Party. According to Arturo Lopez-Levy, he is set apart by “his age, the way he has come to power – step by step in the party apparatus, and not through participating in the revolution – and because he is a civilian with little military experience,” reports EFE.

He has recently made several high-visibility appearances: he accompanied President Castro to January’s summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) in Santiago, Chile, where Cuba began its term as pro-tempore president, and he traveled to Caracas to represent Cuba in a rally celebrating the start of President Chávez’s new term, while Chávez was recovering from surgery in Havana.

Also at this session, Esteban Lazo, former Vice President of Cuba’s State Council, assumed the presidency of the National Assembly, becoming the first Afro-Cuban to hold that position, reports El Nuevo Herald. He replaces Ricardo Alarcón, who presided over the legislative body for 20 years. Former President Fidel Castro, who serves on the National Assembly, was also present for part of the session. The full results of the Council of State elections can be found here.

Telephone installations approved for private businesses

Cuba’s government authorized the installation of telephones in private businesses this week, reports ANSA Latina.  ETECSA, Cuba’s telecommunications provider, can now establish service contracts with private businesses. The move is seen as a continuation of the expansion of private businesses and related services for these businesses under Raúl Castro’s economic reforms.

Cuban cigar sales up in 2012

Cuba’s cigar company, Habanos SA, saw a 6% increase in sales in 2012 from 2011, reports the Associated Press.  Habanos SA credits its sales increase to growing markets in Asia, especially China, as well as in the Americas as helping to offset drops in European sales due to the economic downturn.  Despite major economic difficulties, Spain remains the top market for Cuban cigars.

The new numbers were announced at the 15th International Habano Cigar Festival this week. The festival is expected to attract more than 1,000 people from some 60 countries, and its program includes seminars, tastings, lectures, and visits to plantations and factories, reports Prensa Latina. The AP reports that as part of the festival, Croatian chefs concocted a meal of tobacco-infused food. Cooking the meal as a demonstration, the chefs served fish, bread and butter, and ice cream, all infused with tobacco. The AP features a slideshow of photos from the festival available here.

Catholics in Cuba hold mass for Pope

In a ceremony presided over by Cuba’s Papal Nuncio Monsignor Bruno Musaro, Catholics in Cuba held a mass to thank Pope Benedict XVI as he officially resigned on Thursday, reports Havana Times. The Pope visited Cuba in March of last year, when he called for “authentic freedom” as well as an end to the U.S. embargo.


Cuba accuses U.S. State Department of denying consular access to René González

According to an official declaration by Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Relations (MINREX), the U.S. State Department has routinely denied requests by the Cuban Interests Section to allow representatives to visit René González, one of the Cuban Five, since he began serving his probation in Florida. González was released in 2011 after completing his 13-year sentence and is currently serving three years of probation, which requires him to remain in the U.S.  He is the only one of the Cuban Five to be released from prison so far. In the declaration, MINREX states that the denial of consular visits for imprisoned foreign nationals violates the 1963 Vienna Convention regarding Consular Relations.

The State Department responded Thursday, claiming that because González holds dual citizenship, the U.S. is not obligated under the Vienna Convention to allow him consular access. The State Department added that González had only been granted consular access while in prison as a “courtesy,” and had also recently been permitted to travel to Washington, DC to meet with Cuban diplomats, reports the Associated Press. The response cited both countries’ restriction that the forces the other’s diplomatic envoys to remain in the capital unless granted permission to leave, though the State Department has granted consular access to the Cuban Five in prison.

Josefina Vidal, director of the North America division of Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, continued the exchange Thursday night, stating that Cuba has consistently granted U.S. consular access to prisoners being held outside of the capital city Havana. Ms. Vidal noted, “In recent months, U.S. functionaries, including the head of the U.S. Interests Section, have been granted consular access (to prisoners in the provinces of) Matanzas, Camagüey, Ciego de Ávila, Artemisa and Mayabeque…These travel permissions for consular access have been authorized without exception.”

Scrap metal company to pay fine for embargo violation

Tung Tai Group, a California-based recycling company, will pay $44,000 to the U.S. government for violation of U.S. sanctions on Cuba, reports Cuba Standard. The fine follows an investigation by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), which found that the company had bought and sold scrap metal of Cuban origin in August of 2010, most likely exporting it to China and other Asian markets.

Around the Region

Trial proceeds against former Salvadoran General José Guillermo García

Testimony for the removal hearing brought against Salvadoran General José Guillermo García by the Department of Homeland Security continued in Miami this week. Professor Terry Karl, a political scientist based at Stanford University, testified Monday that General García knowingly allowed human rights violations to take place under his command during the Salvadoran Civil War, reports the Associated Press. García, the former Minister of Defense, is currently facing the possibility of deportation under a law authorizing human rights abusers living in the United States to be expelled. Professor Karl, on behalf of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, argued that the general knew about the abuses, specifically the massacre at El Mozote, yet didn’t investigate if the allegations were true.

General García took the stand on Tuesday and Wednesday, and after both attorneys had finished examination, Judge Michael Horn addressed several questions directly to the respondent, who in his testimony admitted that it was his responsibility to halt human rights abuses. General García, however, said that while he was responsible for the abuses, he was not guilty. Judge Horn continued to press García, asking him how he had permitted massacres to occur, and why he had continued to serve as minister if he was unable to fulfill his responsibility to protect civilians. Analysis of the case from Héctor Silva Ávalos can be found here and here.

Rights Action report: Human Rights Violations by U.S.-Backed Honduran Special Forces Unit, Annie Bird, Rights Action

Annie Bird from Rights Action sheds light on human rights violations carried out by Honduran Special Forces, in the Bajo Aguán region. The report documents 34 violations over the past three years that are linked to the 15th battalion of the Honduran Army, a group that receives training and material assistance from the U.S. military. The violations have been targeted at the land rights movements in Bajo Aguán, and have not been investigated, pointing to complicity by state and local authorities.

Recommended Reading

Special Feature: Along the Malecón:

The latest two installments on Senator Bob Menendez, based on the investigative work of journalist Tracey Eaton, “Doctor now flying under the radar” and “The Menendez File” provide recent details of the ongoing controversy. Read them here and here.

Is now Cuba’s last best chance?, Nick Miroff, Global Post

Nick Miroff offers a cautious take on a possible window of opportunity for improved relations between the U.S. and Cuba, and weighs its viability. As far as possible actions each government could take, he writes: “The Obama administration could ease US travel to Cuba and authorize American credit card and insurance companies to provide financial services. Havana, for its part, could generate American goodwill by stepping up reforms and removing restrictions against the private sector. After his recent decision to ease travel restrictions proved popular, Castro could also open internet access to the general public.”

Editorial: U.S. should engage, not isolate Cuba, Tampa Bay Times

“Change is coming to Cuba, and this is the time for American engagement instead of isolation,” according to the Tampa Bay Times editorial board, which says that Raúl Castro’s recently-announced retirement presents an opportune time for engagement with the island.  Since the government of Cuba enacted sweeping travel reforms, Cubans who can afford to travel now can travel to the United States more freely than American citizens can to Cuba, the Times argues. Cuba’s policy shift should be met with a similar move by the United States that would allow U.S. citizens to travel to the island.

Cuba and its Neighbors: Democracy in MotionArnold August

Author and journalist Arnold August explores political participation in Cuba and its historical development. Mr. August also examines how democracy and participatory processes have functioned in neighboring nations such as Venezuela and the United States. Arnold August has published other books on Cuba and has contributed to other works exploring socialism and elections in Cuba.

Chavism is here to stay, Joaquín Villalobos, El País

Joaquín Villalobos outlines why Chavismo will not disappear from Venezuela even when President Hugo Chávez passes. Despite food shortages, inflation, and criminal violence in Venezuela, Chávez’s Venezuelan United Socialist Party (PSUV) still remains very popular. The party’s popularity stems from the redistribution of oil wealth and the social inclusion programs that have benefited a large portion of the public. Although oil wealth itself may not prove to be sustainable, he says, in the near-term it will prove to be the biggest bolster to the PSUV’s popularity.

Recommended Viewing

Is it time to end the embargo against Cuba? Senator Leahy weighs in, CNN

Candy Crowley interviews Senator Patrick Leahy (VT) as part of CNN’s State of the Union series. Senator Leahy discusses his meetings with Cuba’s president Raúl Castro and jailed former USAID contractor Alan Gross, and expresses that the “Cold War mentality” toward the island needs to change.

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