Every Time You See Vietnam, Think Cuba

July 26, 2013

Yesterday, President Obama met at the White House with Truong Tan Sang, the president of Vietnam.  Later, Mr. Obama traveled to Jacksonville, Florida to deliver a speech on our nation’s economy.  What happened at these two events perfectly illustrates how what is wrong with U.S.-Cuba policy could easily be made right.

Speaking from the Oval Office, this is how President Obama described what diplomatic relations with Vietnam allows both countries to do:

“Obviously, we all recognize the extraordinarily complex history between the United States and Vietnam.  Step by step, what we have been able to establish is a degree of mutual respect and trust that has allowed us now to announce a comprehensive partnership between our two countries that will allow even greater cooperation on a whole range of issues from trade and commerce to military-to-military cooperation, to multilateral work on issues like disaster relief, to scientific and educational exchanges.”

But, as President Obama said, the subject of human rights was very much on the table:

“We discussed the challenges that all of us face when it comes to issues of human rights, and we emphasized how the United States continues to believe that all of us have to respect issues like freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly.  And we had a very candid conversation about both the progress that Vietnam is making and the challenges that remain.”

Significantly, the U.S and Vietnam are making progress on unresolved issues from the war because our countries have normal relations.  Again, Mr. Obama:

“We both reaffirmed the efforts that have been made to deal with war legacy issues.  We very much appreciate Vietnam’s continued cooperation as we try to recover our Missing in Action and those that were lost during the course of the war.  And I reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to work with Vietnam around some of the environmental and health issues that have continued, decades later, because of the war.”

President Sang characterized the talks from Vietnam’s perspective:

“To be frank, President Obama and I had a very candid, open, useful and constructive discussion.  We discussed various matters, including political relations, science and technology, education, defense, the legacy of the war issue, environment, the Vietnamese-American community, human rights as well — and the East Sea as well.”

President Sang also affirmed the power of engagement:

“In a candid, open and constructive spirit, we have come to agree on many issues.  We will strengthen high-level exchanges between the two countries…(and) we will continue regular dialogue at the highest level as possible.  I believe that this is the way in order to build a political trust for further development of our cooperation in all areas.”

Following this meeting, President Obama flew to Jacksonville, Florida to give a speech about his plans for the economy.  He talked about how ordinary Americans benefit from trade:

“In a couple of years, new supertankers are going to start coming through the Panama Canal. Those supertankers can hold three times the amount of cargo.  We want those supertankers coming here to Jacksonville.  (Applause.) If we’ve got more supertankers coming here, that means more jobs at the terminals. That means more warehouses in the surrounding area.  That means more contractors are getting jobs setting up those warehouses.  That means they’ve got more money to spend at the restaurant. That means the waitress has more money to spend to buy her iPod. It starts working for everybody.”

Why talk about Vietnam or the benefits of trade in a publication devoted to news and analysis about Cuba?

Well, during the Vietnam War, over 58,000 Americans were killed, about 1 in ten Americans who served, and as many as 3.8 million Vietnamese died.  The war ended in 1975. It wasn’t easy, but once the United States and Vietnam shook off the burdens of their painful shared history they found they could engage with each other, respectfully and productively.

Today, our country cannot do this with Cuba, because U.S. policy requires Cuba to solve every one of our problems – with its political and economic systems, even with the presence of Raúl Castro as its nation’s president – as a precondition for normalizing relations.  This policy has a proven, fifty year record of failure as a policy, depriving the people of Jacksonville, Florida, and the U.S. of the benefits of free travel and trade, exchange, and everything else.

When President Obama closed his speech in Jacksonville with these words about the opponents of his economic policy, he might have also been talking about U.S. relations with Cuba.

“We’ve got to stop with the short-term thinking.  We’ve got to stop with the outdated debates. That’s not what the moment requires.”

Indeed.

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La política no cabe en la azucarera

July 19, 2013

Last week, when we wrote about new legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives to extinguish people-to-people travel to Cuba, we knew it was bad.

We write today with a greater urgency.  A deeper analysis of the proposal by Dawn Gable, CDA’s assistant director, demonstrates how far-reaching an effort to gut travel this amendment represents.  Moreover, the political climate has become more uncertain after the seizure of Cuban cargo hidden beneath brown sugar that may violate the UN arms embargo against North Korea.

First principles first:  We believe in engagement.  We believe that Cuba and the United States are trapped in a self-perpetuating cycle of animosity and distrust because the two governments rarely talk and because both publics have historically been walled off from normal contact.  In the last five decades, both governments have circled each other suspiciously and bad conditions have often been made worse because of the absence of normal dialogue.

That is why we believe so strongly in the value of travel and engagement, because they bring people together, and why we are alarmed by efforts in the Congress to shut down people-to-people travel, stunt Cuban American family travel, and bury an already burdened government office under a mountain of paperwork which will hurt every day Cubans.

Dawn’s analysis highlights the trouble spots.  One provision of the Treasury Department budget bill ends people-to-people travel by defunding its licensing process.  The people-to-people program isn’t perfect and it only reaches a fraction of the U.S. citizens who are interested in visiting Cuba.  But, according to one estimate, more than 103,000 non-Cuban American visitors came to Cuba in 2012, and people-to-people travel made the overwhelming number of them possible.

Groups that sponsor travel including – colleges, museums, environmental groups, groups that do economic research and urban development groups, groups that support medical and other forms of cooperation, peace groups, and foreign policy groups – these and many others – would no longer have licenses to sponsor travel to Cuba.  The legislation would airmail us back to the travel ban days of President George W. Bush.

Wait, as the saying goes, it gets worse.  Today, Cuban American families can visit their relatives in Cuba as often as they wish and provide them unlimited financial support, also called “remittances.”  Family remittances help relatives make ends meet for the tight household budgets of Cuban families, and are increasingly feeding the growth of private sector businesses opened by every day Cubans under President Raúl Castro’s economic reforms.  The visits and the support do not require licenses or paperwork of any kind.

That would end.  If this bill became law, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) the agency inside Treasury charged with implementing U.S. trade sanctions would be required to report to Congress on “all family travel” as well as all travel involving the legal carrying of remittances to Cuba, including by family of USINT employees. The report would include: number of travelers; average duration of stay for each trip; average amount of U.S. dollars spent per traveler; number of return trips per year; and total sum of U.S. dollars spent collectively in each fiscal year.

OFAC could not compile the report without imposing new requirements on remittances provided by families and on remittances by Americans of all backgrounds to support new businesses or religious organizations or U.S. students studying legally in Cuba.  The only remittances that would not have to be reported would be those paid to Cuba’s political opposition.

To be clear, if you believe that Cuban Americans and all Americans should enjoy the right to travel to Cuba and support everyday Cubans financially, we ask that you heed calls for action by the Latin America Working Group (here) and the Fund for Reconciliation and Development (here) and urge Congress to oppose this bill and President Obama to promise he will veto it.

“A larger, slow-moving thaw,” as the Associated Press reported, had recently seemed to return to bilateral relations in recent weeks.  A member of the Cuban Five returned to the island for good.  Diplomats from both countries, as we report below, had easier times traveling.  Mail service talks took place last month; migrations talks took place this week.

After the North Korean vessel was seized in Panama this week, however, with 220,000 sacks of Cuban brown sugar piled atop a cache of weapons from Cuba, this pattern of progress is now at risk.  We report on this incident in detail later in the blast.

Unsurprisingly, supporters of sanctions on Cuba, its placement on the terror list, and ongoing efforts to overthrow the Cuban government reacted before the facts were in.  In her statement, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said, “I call on the Department of State to immediately cease its migration talks this week with the Cuban regime until it provides clear and coherent answers regarding this incident.”  She also joined several colleagues who wrote Secretary Kerry urging him to pour more sanctions on any country found to be violating the UN embargo.

Rather than gagging diplomacy, this seemed an appropriate time for the two countries to talk, and her demand was ignored by the Obama administration.   More to the point, the State Department refused to get ahead of the facts or to point fingers at Cuba, with Marie Harf, departmental spokeswoman saying, “I would underscore that the issue of the ship isn’t a U.S.-Cuba issue.”  As AFP reported, the UN took the same tack, stating “The Secretary-General awaits the outcome of the investigation into the matter in question and is sure the 1718 Security Council Sanctions Committee will promptly address it.”

Here, we end where we began.  We are heartened that the State Department called people-to-people travel in the national security interest of the U.S. just this afternoon.  Because, none of this will go any easier if this incident becomes a predicate for stopping Cuban Americans from visiting or supporting their families on the island, or cutting off educational travel; nor will we get to the bottom of it faster by cutting off diplomacy between the United States and Cuba.

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Rubio may have Tupac on his iPod, but Chairman Crenshaw has Jay-Z on his mind

July 12, 2013

Florida Senator Marco Rubio may have Tupac on his iPod, but Florida Congressman Ander Crenshaw appears to have Jay-Z and Beyoncé on his mind.

Crenshaw chairs a House Appropriations Subcommittee with authority over the U.S. Treasury Department budget, which includes spending to enforce U.S. sanctions against Cuba.  This week, his panel approved a $17 billion budget bill that funds the department, but also proposes rewriting the rules for people-to-people travel to Cuba.

To prevent a Jay-Z/Beyoncé trip to Cuba from happening again someday, Crenshaw marshaled majority support in his subcommittee to prohibit legal travel to Cuba“for educational exchanges not involving academic study pursuant to a degree program.”  In other words, U.S. travelers would have to be enrolled in a degree program for their trip to be approved.

Of course, it is unlikely that Jay-Z and Beyoncé are going to return to the island anytime soon, so the legislation is not aimed at them, but against millions of other U.S. travelers who would like to take advantage of what is already a tightly regulated program to visit Cuba.  The Crenshaw bill would end, for all practical purposes, people-to-people travel.

On January 14, 2011, President Obama reopened categories of travel to Cuba to increase people-to-people contacts.  The president both restored rights for scholars and students to travel to the island for coursework that offered academic credit, and provided “specific licensing of educational exchanges not involving academic study pursuant to a degree program under the auspices of an organization that sponsors and organizes people-to-people programs.”

These are not tourist programs masquerading as academic study.  The Treasury Department made clear that “a requirement for licenses issued” under the program “is that each traveler must have a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities that will result in meaningful interaction between the travelers and individuals in Cuba.”

As Treasury reported in April, this is how Jay-Z and Beyoncé went legally to Cuba; but, more important, it is how many U.S. travelers who are not Cuban American can visit the island at all.

In 2009, President Obama also reopened family travel to Cuba which, according to estimates by The Havana Consulting Group, enabled upwards of 475,936 visits by Cuban Americans in 2012 alone.

This means that roughly 5,000 of Rep. Crenshaw’s constituents, and upwards of 260,000 of Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart’s constituents (he serves on the Crenshaw committee, too), already get a free pass to travel to Cuba on an unlimited basis and their freedom to travel will be undisturbed if this legislation becomes law.  It’s the rest of us who would lose the chance to visit the island if this provision is enacted.

Understandably, the subcommittee action prompted Rep. José Serrano, the ranking Minority Member of the subcommittee, to say, “This is the Jay-Z, Beyoncé Bill.  “Absolutely [it’s a response to the trip], and it’s playing to the audience in Miami.”

Mr. Serrano is a heroically consistent supporter of the freedom to travel to Cuba.  But, we say with respect, he is conceding too much.  We know from polling data gathered in 2011, gathered by the Cuba Research Institute at Florida International University that the audience in Miami isn’t so enamored by this policy either.

When 648 randomly selected Cuban-American respondents polled in Miami-Dade County were asked, “Should unrestricted travel by all Americans to Cuba be allowed or not?,” 57% said yes and 43% said no.  But, support levels among respondents of Cuban descent who arrived in the U.S. after 1994 topped 75%.  It’s a fact that Americans broadly support ending the travel ban, and it’s a myth that there’s a big audience in South Florida for keeping this failed policy on the books.

So what happens to the Crenshaw bill now?

Congress is bad at enacting budget bills on time, if ever.  But, if this one gets close to enactment, the administration should issue a veto threat against it, just like it did the last time Congress threatened to mess with the president’s travel reforms.  More to the point, the administration should be looking for ways to create a general license for all travel to Cuba, so the U.S. government could save money by foregoing the enforcement of sanctions that restrict our liberties and injure U.S. interests.

Earlier this year, Forbes.com published a reminder that 10 different federal agencies have enforcement roles in the embargo, hundreds of millions of dollars are spent enforcing Cuba sanctions annually, and that “70 percent of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control inspections each year are centered on rooting out smuggled Cuban goods even though the agency administers more than 20 other trade bans.

Rep. Crenshaw is a sworn enemy of waste.  Just ask him:  “I’m happy to stand on the side of the American taxpayer and their strong desire to cut wasteful spending.”

He can save the taxpayer a lot of money and free his mind to think about problems larger than Beyoncé and Jay-Z by using his post to expand rather than restrict travel.  This is a message he should hear from Florida and across the country, as our colleagues at the Latin America Working Group advocate here.  His proposal should not become law.

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A July 4th Story About Democracy Promotion

July 5, 2013

A short time back, Digital Diplomacy was all the rage.  Personified by Jared Cohen and Alec Ross, who married social media to democracy promotion at the State Department, the U.S. government made a costly and public commitment to modernizing its tools of diplomacy.

Those were heady days for cyber-democrats, and the U.S. government wasn’t shy about its role in promoting change.  “As American officials and others look back at the uprisings of the Arab Spring, they are seeing that the United States’ democracy-building campaigns played a bigger role in fomenting protests than was previously known, with key leaders of the movements having been trained by the Americans in campaigning, organizing through new media tools and monitoring elections.”

Eric Schmidt, then CEO at Google, who brought Cohen and Ross to the company’s headquarters in Mountain View for a Q+A session with dozens of employees, asked them “Is it like calling up all the ambassadors and saying, Please use Facebook, Twitter, and Google?”

It wasn’t that easy.  The ideas behind so-called 21st Century statecraft turned out to be harder to implement than conceive.  Both men have since left the State Department.  Mr. Cohen got a job at Google.  Mr. Ross is writing a book and serving as a corporate consultant.  But, the structure they left behind may not be doing all that well.

If you saw the headline, State Department spent $630G to boost Facebook ‘likes,’ report says, you know what we’re talking about.  In a report recently made public, the Office of the Inspector General for the U.S. Department of State and the Broadcasting Board of Governors found that the Department spent $630,000 boosting its likes on Facebook, “artificially increasing apparent popularity of the Bureau’s English-language Facebook page from 100,000 likes to 2 million.”

The word “artificially” was well-chosen.  The report also found that the money produced little increase in engagement.  Members of the larger audience weren’t likely to be active politically. The Department didn’t understand how Facebook managed its news feeds, and it was poorly organized to make use of the effort.  The Inspector General found such pervasive problems that the report required over 80 recommendations for fixes.

The report showed a Department more interested in boosting its numbers – to measure just how energetically it was promoting democracy and using social media in nations overseas – than in thinking about or organizing what it was doing.  This had a familiar ring to us.

We mentioned the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) before, when we learned about its contract with Washington Software, Inc. to build up its social media effort in Cuba.  According to documents disgorged by Tracey Eaton, the investigative journalist with whom we are working, “the BBG paid Washington Software $14,474 for” – get this – “361,873 text messages sent to cell phones in Cuba during the month of October 2011” alone.

The numbers sound robust; just like moving up the State Department’s numbers on Facebook.  But, the Cuba programs are shrouded in secrecy, and U.S. taxpayers have no idea what the SMS messages said, to whom they were sent, or what the purposes of the messages were.

Apparently, we must simply trust Carlos García-Pérez, the director of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, who is certain these efforts are successful.  “With these new initiatives we are enhancing the way that people in Cuba can share information,” he said in comments reported by the Miami Herald.

We’re not so sure.  Earlier this spring, Mr. Eaton reported that the BBG has spent more than half-a-million dollars since 2005 to buy TV and Radio Martí the rights to broadcast Major League Baseball games for the Cuban audience, even though the stations are jammed by Cuba’s government.

Last Sunday, the Associated Press reported that Cuba broadcast a major league game on state television.  It was stripped of commercial advertising, neither of the teams involved fielded any Cuban players, and the game was two-months old.  Not surprisingly, Cubans who watched didn’t think much of it.

If the Martís are broadcasting the real thing live, why did Cuba need to run a May 2nd game on June 30th?  Because no one in Cuba hears them.  So why was the BBG bragging on July 2nd about its contract with Major League Baseball?  Because it doesn’t think that anyone here knows any better, and they are right.

As events unfolded in Egypt this week, we were reminded that democracy promotion is a tricky, unpredictable thing.  It’s inherently intrusive, as one scholar of the subject wrote recently, and causes pushback in the countries where we’re accused of meddling.

In Cuba, where these activities are illegal, they endanger the citizens who come in contact with them and put the personnel who carry them out at great risk.  In the U.S., because they are carried out in secret, most U.S. taxpayers are completely in the dark about what their government is doing, which hardly seems democratic at all.

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