Obama’s climate change plan and the sound of two, wet hands clapping

June 28, 2013

Goodbye, Miami?

Last week, Rolling Stone published a stunning report about the bleak future facing Miami because of climate change:

“[T]he unavoidable truth is that… rising waters will destroy Miami slowly, by seeping into wiring, roads, building foundations and drinking-water supplies – and quickly, by increasing the destructive power of hurricanes. ‘Miami, as we know it today, is doomed,’ says Harold Wanless, the chairman of the department of geological sciences at the University of Miami. ‘It’s not a question of if. It’s a question of when.’”

This dire warning wasn’t news to the scientists, federal agencies, local governments and academic institutions in South Florida, which have been alert to this crisis for some time.

Earlier this year, U.S. government scientists singled out Florida, Louisiana, and North Carolina, each with at least a thousand square kilometers of dry land less than 1 meter above high tide, as uniquely vulnerable to rising seas. In Dade County, land valued at $70 billion is at risk due to accelerated sea-level rise.  The Everglades and Florida Keys, top tourist attractions, are threatened, and one study projects that Florida will lose $9 billion in tourism revenue by 2025 and $40 billion by 2050.

While the Miami Herald reported last year that “South Florida took the threat seriously before most everybody else,” the magnitudes of the climate threat and the costs associated with mitigation, adaptation, and resiliency make the risks “seem only bigger, scarier and no longer quite so far down the road.”

Not so far away across the Florida Straits, Cubans are subject to the same weather and similar anxieties.  According to the Associated Press, Cuban scientists are now projecting that 122 Cuban towns could be seriously damaged or ‘wiped off the map’ by rising tides which, in turn, would taint supplies of fresh water, brutalize croplands, drive families from their homes, and endanger “a $2.5 billion-a-year tourism industry that is its No. 1 source of foreign income.”

The U.S. and Cuba live in the same neighborhood and share the same climate and ecosystems.  However distant Havana and Miami are politically, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand why it is in both our nations’ interests to increase cooperation on scientific activities and take steps to ultimately solve the problem of climate change.

Here, there are reasons for hope.

First, Cuba can be a real partner. As scholars from UC Berkeley and the University of Matanzas reported last year, while “Cuba represents 2 percent of the Latin American population…it has 11 percent of the scientists in the region.”  Compared to many developed and developing nations, Cuba has robust resources for research, and a real track record of focusing on core dimensions of the climate change problem.

Second, while Cuba’s environmental record  is hardly spotless, it has long taken decisions to protect its natural resources, to save food and water supplies or revenue from tourism.  Scientific American offers this summary of Cuba’s work to create a sustainable shark fishery.  Here, the Environmental Defense Fund discusses a joint project with Cuba’s government that led to the creation of the largest marine reserve in the Caribbean.

Third, the U.S. government has acted quietly but affirmatively to encourage scientific and environmental exchanges with Cuba for a number of years.  In one example, the U.S., Cuba, Mexico, and the Bahamas held talks in March on oil spill prevention and response and have all but finalized a “protocol” for cooperation.

Fourth, in the climate change action plan he unveiled this week, President Obama signaled a commitment to working with willing global partners in a way that bypasses Congress:

“I’m directing my administration to launch negotiations toward global free trade in environmental goods and services, including clean energy technology, to help more countries skip past the dirty phase of development and join a global low-carbon economy.”

This declaration could form the basis for executive actions to remove barriers and resource constraints that stop scientists on both sides of the Florida Straits from doing more.

As Melissa Gaskill writing in Scientific American explains:

University of Havana researchers can’t just hop over to Cabañas whenever they need to—few have cars and fuel can be hard to come by. Also, scientists in the U.S. and Cuba find it challenging to communicate, as e-mail can be slow and sporadic. An American scientist may suggest a Web site resource to a colleague in Cuba only to discover Cubans can’t access it. Travel restrictions imposed by both governments create delays, a forced flexibility familiar to Cubans. The U.S. government restricts U.S. scientists from training their Cuban counterparts but allows mutually beneficial exchanges of information, turning the normal process of collaboration into something more complex.

Experts like Dan Whittle of the Environmental Defense Fund know how problems like this are solved. “Environmental protection doesn’t happen by accident. It requires good science, careful planning, and strong political will. In the case the U.S. and Cuba, it starts with exchange, dialogue, and cooperation.”

Earlier this year, a dozen environmental, scientific, and research organizations called on President Obama to ease restrictions on licenses required for travel to Cuba for environmental purposes, licenses for research equipment, and licenses that would enable donors to fund environmental projects and programs in Cuba that would otherwise limp along or not get done.

Having spoken so forcefully on climate change, the president can answer their call for action, and the people of Miami will applaud him for doing so.

After all, he’d just be carrying their water.

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¡Tú tienes correo! Waiting decades to hear: you’ve got mail

June 21, 2013

On January 4, 1999, an article headlined “US to Allow More Contact With Cuba” crossed the Associated Press wire at 8:06pm:

“The Clinton administration plans to allow more contact between Americans and Cubans …a senior official disclosed Monday.  President Clinton also plans to approve the opening of direct mail service to the island…

“The senior official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity, said the measures are not intended to improve relations with the Cuban government, but to show support for the Cuban people.  She added that the U.S. embargo against Cuba, imposed 37 years ago, will remain in effect.

“Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said the proposals are a mask to hide the administration’s ‘true intention of normalizing relations with the Cuban dictator.‘”

Then, fourteen years later, an article headlined “US, Cuba to resume talks on direct mail” crossed the Associated Press wire at 5:34pm:

“U.S. and Cuban diplomats and postal representatives will meet in Washington on Tuesday and Wednesday for technical talks aimed at ending a 50-year suspension in direct mail between the United States and the communist island.”

Despite the passage of time, another State Department spokeswoman was ready with a familiar-sounding caveat:

“The reason we’re doing this is because it’s, of course, good for the Cuban people. This is something we feel is good for us. But it’s not meant to be a signal of anything or indicate a change in policy.”

Recycling the talking points, just as the State Department did in 1999 and 2013, also worked for Rep. Ros-Lehtinen, who said:

“The regime is once again manipulating the US Administration in this game because it wants us to lift the embargo and make further concessions.”

Perhaps Lily Tomlin is right:  “Maybe if we listened to it, history would stop repeating itself.”

How did we get here?

The year was 1963.  It cost a nickel to send a letter by first class mail.  The U.S. and Cuba were living in the scorching heat of a Cold War.  Direct mail service was suspended, as the Washington Post noted, “the year the Kennedy administration tightened the trade embargo with Cuba and made all but a sliver of travel there illegal for American citizens.”

Decades passed, and “anyone wanting to send letters to the U.S. mainland from Cuba and vice-versa have had to do so via third-party countries.”

Periodically, when the U.S. made overtures about resuming mail service, as the Congressional Research Service has reported, Cuba’s government responded “by maintaining that the two countries would need to enter into a civil aviation agreement.”  Thanks to the U.S. embargo, the only scheduled airline travel between Cuba and the U.S. takes place through charter activity that relies only on U.S. companies.  Cuban commercial aviation is not welcomed in the U.S.

In 1992, when the U.S. Congress enacted The Cuban Democracy Act, which toughened and codified anti-Cuba sanctions, it also ordered the U.S. Postal Service to “take such actions as are necessary to provide direct mail service to and from Cuba, including, in the absence of common carrier service between the two countries, the use of charter service providers.”  But, neither the Bush (41) nor the Clinton Administration got the job done.

An agreement between the U.S. and Cuba in 2009 restarted the mail via third countries, a process imposing delays of weeks or months before letters are delivered.  In the wake of a parcel bomb terror threat from Yemen, Cuba halted some deliveries because new security screenings meant that “large amounts of mail were refused entry (into the U.S.) and returned to (Cuba) in the following months.”

This week, the two governments tried again.  As the Washington Times reported, “José Ramón Cabañas Rodríguez, the chief of mission at the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, and Lea Emerson, the U.S. Postal Service‘s director of international postal affairs” sat down in Washington this week to discuss delivering the mail.

The Cubans called the talks “fruitful,” but raised a familiar refrain in the press statement they issued at their conclusion:

“The Cuban delegation emphasized the fact that it would not be possible to implement a stable, quality and safe postal service based on the principles and standards established by the Universal Postal Union both countries are members of, as long as the obstacles resulting from the blockade policy imposed by the United States Government against Cuba are not removed.”

Even this was too much for the hardliners.  One critic looked past the humanitarian appeal of direct mail service and saw a sinister plot to bailout the U.S. Postal Service budget (no, really).  Connecting the dots – recent decisions to grant a visa to a top Cuban diplomat for talks at the State Department, the mail negotiations, and new talks on migration set for July 17th – Rep. Ros-Lehtinen said, ” It’s concession after concession from the Obama administration.”

This reaction is not just misplaced, it’s odd.  Time and again, hardliners say the Cuban government maintains “an information blockade” against its people.  Yet, when offered real changes to open up trade and travel, or resume the direct delivery of the mail – actions that could really spur a two-way exchange of information and ideas – they won’t hear about it.

This isn’t about concessions; it’s about contact.  If we ever plan on bringing this Cold War-era conflict to an end, Cuba and the United States need to talk to each other.

The mail talks are a decent place to start.  As Dr. Phil Brenner, professor of international relations at American University, a CDA board member and Cuba scholar told us:

“The consequences of the talks themselves will not bring major changes — fewer people every day use snail mail for communication…[But] the Obama Administration is shifting the framework of US policy, from merely reacting to Cuban actions to a positive policy that focuses on engaging Cuba in ways that can serve U.S. interests.”

Such a shift is long overdue.  We can’t wait to read the AP headline about that.

This week, in Cuba news…

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Feliz Día del Padre

June 14, 2013

As we begin Father’s Day weekend, it seemed right to open with a brief note about family, connection, and inclusion.

During the presidency of George W. Bush, the financial and emotional support provided by members of the Cuban diaspora to their families on the island got caught in the twist of the tourniquet of U.S. sanctions.

Family visits to the island were limited to one trip every three years under a specific license, as the Congressional Research Service explained, to visit only immediate family members.   The ability to send remittances – transfers of money to kin in Cuba – was severely restricted, as was the amount of cash (from $3,000 to $300) that the limited numbers of authorized travelers could bring.  Ironically, these policy changes were driven, in part, by hardliners in the diaspora, but the sting could be felt in homes on both sides of the straits.

During the first year of his presidency, Barack Obama used his executive authority to permit unlimited family travel and remittances.  This action not only alleviated the suffering imposed on families divided by the Bush-era travel policy, but it also coincided with the process led in Cuba by President Raúl Castro to liberalize economic and social restrictions on the Cuban people.

According to a new report, Remittances Drive the Cuban Economy, issued by the Havana Consulting Group, cash remittances, from the U.S. and other nations, estimated at $2.6 billion in 2012, now compromise Cuba’s largest individual source of hard currency.  They exceed revenues derived from tourism and exports of nickel, pharmaceuticals, and sugar.

Beyond the simple and important role of helping families make ends meet, this report is not alone (see here and here) in finding that cash to Cuba from the diaspora is helping to drive the creation and expansion of entrepreneurial activity in Cuba that is enabling Cuban citizens to leave state jobs and seek their futures in Cuba’s changing economy.

For critics who carp that nothing changes in Cuba – their odd defense for keeping U.S. sanctions in place exactly as they have been for fifty plus years – the remittance report is a reminder that President Castro has engineered significant changes, that Cubans are responding, and families in the U.S. are contributing importantly to a transition that is making their family members and other Cubans more independent and ideally more prosperous.

While we believe strongly that President Obama should move further and faster on loosening the U.S. embargo of Cuba, his policy decisions in 2009 to provide unlimited family travel and remittances and create larger openings for travel and remittances in 2011 have become important drivers of economic reform and individual empowerment in Cuba, and capitalized on the family and financial strengths of the community of Cuban descent that resides in Florida and across the United States.

One last thing:  the Cuban American community, for political reasons, of course, has historically faced a different and less restrictive set of immigration rules than migrants seeking to come to the U.S. of any other nationality.

The Miami Herald noted this week that Miami-Dade county is, in their words, “a Spanish-speaking bastion where many immigrants legal and illegal can get by for years without having to speak English.”

In that bastion, they treasure family – not more and certainly not less – just like every other community that has come here from overseas.  Many of them are watching with concern as the debate on immigration takes place in Washington especially now as a new proposal is offered in the U.S. Senate to “require that undocumented immigrants be able to read, write and speak English before earning a green card.”  This amendment, paradoxically, is being written by their Senator, Marco Rubio.

We’re not experts in the field of immigration.  But, the fear being expressed by reform advocates is that adoption of this provision could scuttle chances for passing a bill or make the policy much less welcoming and generous than the authors of reform wanted and intended.

We can only hope that the wisdom behind the travel and remittance policies grounded in the values of family, connection and inclusion is brought to bear on the larger, historic immigration debate as well.

To the families reading the Cuba Central News Blast this holiday weekend, we close by saying Feliz Día del Padre, or Happy Father’s Day.

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News Flash? Has the Administration rediscovered Latin America?

June 7, 2013

Today, as we put cursor-to-screen, we were struck by a few facts – some present, some absent –that could augur a welcome change in U.S. relations with Latin America and Cuba.

As Tim Padgett wrote this week, it appeared as if “the Obama Administration is suddenly interested in Latin America and the Caribbean after four years of indifference.”

Not only did President Obama visit Mexico and Costa Rica last month, he’ll soon be hosting the presidents of Chile and Peru at the White House, and Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff for a state visit and dinner in the fall.

Vice President Biden visited the region and published this op-ed piece about what he learned.   Without giving an inch on the U.S. vision of democracy for Latin America, strikingly absent from his chosen words were references to Cuba or criticisms of Venezuela.   He was speaking with a lowered voice.

More so, as Padgett noted, “For once the region can feel as though Washington is approaching it from a standpoint of pragmatism instead of paternalism.”   Biden closed his column saying, “The defining question for U.S. policy is no longer ‘what can we do for the Americas?’ It is ‘what can we do together?’”

Year after year, U.S. relations with Venezuela were poisoned when Washington confronted Caracas and tried to divide Latin America along Cold War lines; when both governments demonized each other’s leaders, sent home both nations’ ambassadors, and pretended neither country played important roles diplomatically or economically in the regional or the world.

So, it was unusual to see Secretary of State John Kerry shaking hands with Foreign Minister Elias Jaua, striking to read Jaua propose “having better relations between the two countries on the basis of mutual respect,” and heartening to learn that an American filmmaker, who had been jailed on espionage charges in Venezuela, had been freed.   Both countries will now engage in a high-level dialogue aimed at restoring diplomatic relations, as the Miami Herald reported in December they would ultimately do.   Even if you strained to hear the bellicosity, it just wasn’t there; another absent fact.

Here are some more.  Last week, we discussed how the Obama administration has progressively watered down the case for keeping Cuba on the terrorism list.   Previous criticisms of Cuba’s record on terrorism – that Cuba denounced U.S. counterterrorism efforts, its demand for the return home of the Cuban Five, Cuba’s record on extradition requests, many of the excuses for keeping Cuba on the list – have simply vanished.

Present, but subtly presented, was this finding in the terrorism report that “There were no known operational cells of either al-Qa’ida or Hizballah in the hemisphere,” refuting a constant Cold Warrior call to arms, to militarize U.S. policy, divide the region, and question the administration’s vigilance against terror.

More subtly still, no one in Washington this week announced what Cuba government has told CNN; namely, that it would allow Alan Gross, the USAID “regime change” subcontractor, to receive a medical exam from a U.S. doctor, a break from Cuba’s earlier expressed position.

How did this come about?  Maybe it is connected to the U.S. government welcoming Josefina Vidal from Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, giving her a visa and a State Department meeting, with the apparently controversial thought that when countries have disagreements they should sit down with each other to discuss them.

Don’t get us wrong: All is not well.  While the State Department gave a visa to Ms. Vidal, it also stopped a dozen Cuban academics from attending last month’s LASA meeting in Washington by denying them entry.   The government may have slimmed down the false accusation that Cuba’s belongs on the terror list, but it still kept Cuba on it.  While the Vice-President asks, “what can we do together?”, our government remains in unilateral pursuit of a high-cost, low-probability “regime change” solution for Cuba.

We can’t know now if the facts we saw this week form a pattern, or a trend, or signal anything larger.  Whether this new interest in Latin America is motivated by economics, as Tim Padgett argued, or the administration is engineering a slow turn in direction after its disastrous performance at the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, or it will later revert to indifference, time will tell.

But, when the administration starts doing things that ground U.S. policy toward the Americas in mutual respect, or engage in dialogue with governments with which we’ve been at odds, we simply had to take notice.

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