What Obama can do to stop driving the world and Brazil nuts

September 27, 2013

This week at the United Nations General Assembly, Brazil’s president, Dilma Rouseff, earned global attention with a strongly-worded condemnation of the NSA surveillance program that violated the privacy of her own email, telephone calls, and text messages, and that of communications throughout Brazil.

“We face,” she told the General Assembly and an audience of world leaders, “a situation of grave violation of human rights and of civil liberties; of invasion and capture of confidential information concerning corporate activities, and especially of disrespect to national sovereignty.

We expressed to the Government of the United States our disapproval, and demanded explanations, apologies and guarantees that such procedures will never be repeated. The problem, however, goes beyond a bilateral relationship. It affects the international community itself and demands a response from it. Information and telecommunication technologies cannot be the new battlefield between States.”

Not since Hugo Chávez, the late president of Venezuela, likened then-president George W. Bush to the devil, and accused him of acting “as if he owned the world,” has a UN General Assembly address by a Latin American leader generated this much news.

What makes this development different – and, for U.S. foreign policy more disconcerting – is that President Rouseff cannot be dismissed as easily as President Chávez often was for representing what Cold Warriors called “the pink tide.”  She is the leader of the largest economy in South America, the sixth largest in the world. Her county is among those most likely to be next made a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council.  Brazil is a huge export market for the U.S. – just ask Boeing – and they are the global destination for FIFA’s next World Cup and the IOC’s next summer Olympic Games.

Moreover, she is not alone, and what is dividing the United States from its natural partners in the region and other nations around the world is not just U.S. snooping but their growing willingness to diverge from the U.S. on issues where we have historically expected them simply to fall into line.

Chilean President Sebastian Piñera urged greater reforms in the Security Council than the U.S. supports.  Others displayed divisions over reforming drug policy.  El Salvador’s President, Mauricio Funes, among our closest allies in Latin America, broke with the U.S. over Cuba policy, and called what he termed the blockade “a relic of the past.”

Sometimes, what is said at the UN can really matter.  So, it is heartening that when President Obama spoke to the General Assembly, he ruled out American support for regime change in Iran, as he pursued a diplomatic end to its nuclear weapons programs, and that he later declared, “We are no longer in a Cold War. There’s no Great Game to be won.”  Those of us who think about U.S.-Cuba policy could hardly help nodding our heads.

But, we can only gauge what words are worth by measuring the actions taken in their wake.  If the president can reach an accommodation with Iran’s government that acknowledges its legitimacy; if he can say to the world, in the context of Russian diplomacy on Syria, that the Cold War is over, how much longer must we wait for him to apply these conclusions to his management of U.S.-Cuba relations?

We know he knows better.  YouTube has the evidence on tape (take that, NSA!).  We know the world is impatient for the U.S. to come around; we face global condemnation in the next few weeks at the U.N. for maintaining the embargo against Cuba, and a regional boycott at the next Summit of the Americas if the U.S. tries again to exclude Cuba.

Now is the time for the president to act. It is time to take the good and important things he does below the radar – the negotiations, the travel reforms, the tamped down rhetoric – and make a public commitment to end the Cold War in the last theater where it is still being waged.  It will modernize a policy that has been flawed and failed for decades. It will help the Cuban people.  It is in our national interest for him to do this.

Even more, if in the course of normalizing relations, the president shows the world that we need not listen to their phone calls to actually hear what they are saying, the importance of this action will resonate loudly beyond the boundaries of Cuba.  That can – and should – be his legacy.

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If you shut your eyes tightly, nothing is changing in Cuba or here (so open them).

September 20, 2013

A controlling premise of U.S. policy is that Cuba must change – by which its Cold War-era authors meant giving up every feature of its governing and economic systems – before our country will even contemplate normalizing relations with Cuba.

So far, this approach doesn’t seem to be working.  But, hey, as the current crop of Cold Warriors seem to think: ‘just give it time.  We’ve only been at it for six decades.’

As written, these policies make it extremely difficult for U.S. residents to visit Cuba legally, nearly impossible to engage with Cuba economically, and pose enormous obstacles for our government in dealing with Cuba’s government diplomatically.

Consequently, they have a vested interest in persuading anyone (U.S. policymakers) and everyone (the rest of us) that Cuba is the same country in 2013 as it was more than fifty years ago when sanctions were first slapped on.

But the notion that Cuba hasn’t changed and isn’t changing is the hardliner’s illusion, not ours.  Nearly every day, changes are taking place on the island and even here – in Miami and Washington – where people are seeing this issue differently and behaving differently, too.

Just take a look at what we’re reporting this week:

Cuban Music Icon Rodríguez Challenges State Censorship

HAVANA — The best known musician in Cuba and a staunch supporter of the island’s communist revolution, Silvio Rodríguez, has challenged state censorship by inviting a recently sanctioned colleague to join him at two concerts this weekend on the Caribbean island.

Cuba’s Bishops Call for Political Freedom and New Relations With U.S.

HAVANA –The Roman Catholic Church in Cuba has issued a rare pastoral letter calling for political reform in tandem with social and economic changes already underway. Additionally, the letter praised the recent reforms of President Raúl Castro and called on the U.S. to end decades-old economic embargo on the island.

NPR affiliate apologizes and re-invites Cuba book author

MIAMI — The Miami affiliate of National Public Radio has apologized for canceling an interview with the author of a book that criticizes the Miami trial of five Cuban spies, and has re-invited him to appear on a news show.

U.S. and Cuba talk about resuming direct mail service

HAVANA – The United States and Cuba concluded on Monday their second round of talks aimed at re-establishing direct mail service between the two countries after a 50-year ban, but left for later the most sensitive issue – Cuban planes landing on U.S. soil.

These are just the headlines from this week.  Regular readers will remember what we have reported in the past: when Cuba’s government legalized cell phones, dropped prohibitions on Cubans selling their cars and homes, stopped denying Cubans entry into hotels, opened up jobs for Cubans in the private sector to earn their own living away from the state payroll, legalized travel for so that most Cubans can leave and return to Cuba, sold off some state-owned businesses, freed political prisoners, shuttered the Ministry of Sugar, and opened media channels to complaints by citizens about government inefficiency and corruption in the health sector, and the list goes on.

These are real changes and it’s very hard to connect any of them to trade sanctions, travel restrictions, Radio or TV Martí, or the “democracy promotion” (regime change) programs responsible for the arrest and lengthy prison sentence being served by Alan Gross, as much as the Cold Warriors might try.

This is not to say that everything is perfect, or that Cuba has become the multiparty democracy as specified under The Cuban Democracy Act of 1992 or the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (Libertad) Act of 1996.

What it does mean, however, is that when you hear their mantra “nothing has changed,” the Cold Warriors who repeat it are only admitting what the rest of us know – their policy has never worked and that time has passed them by.

Now that you’ve opened your eyes and read the headlines, we invite you to read the news.

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On Warriors Cold and Happy

September 13, 2013

Here at Cuba Central, we explore all points of view and publish our news summary minus the kind of invective that discourages so many of us about debating ideas that matter.

So, when a group across town bridled at being labeled “Cold Warriors” for, as they put it, opposing “Cuba’s dictatorship,” that made us stop and wonder if they had a point.

It’s very hard to argue the proposition that U.S. policy toward Cuba and all of Latin America was and is based on thinking straight out of the Cold War playbook.

As Thomas Carothers wrote in his book, In the Name of Democracy, “After World War II, the overriding concern of the United States in Latin America became fighting communism, or more specifically, trying to prevent the emergence of left-leaning governments and seeking to oust the ones that did emerge.”

In fact, the U.S. did work to topple governments as it did in Guatemala and Chile, as the National Security Archives documented again this week, with new revelations about Henry Kissinger and the coup against Salvador Allende, and stopped leftist parties from winning democratic elections in places like El Salvador.  Even as the Cold War waned, that is what U.S. policy did.

Much of this has subsided in the hemisphere; except, most notably, in Cuba, where normal trade and diplomatic relations with the U.S. remain suspended.  Where operations -–overt or semi-covert -– are still underway (ask Alan Gross).  Radio and TV Martí, costly broadcast operations jammed by Cuba’s government and hardly heard by any Cubans, are still housed alongside Radio Free Europe.  It’s all stuff of the Cold War, with the occasional spot shine and sheen of social media to give it a modern glow.

Back in the 1950s, Bob Welch, founder of the John Birch Society, made headlines when he called President Eisenhower a “lackey,” and a “conscious, dedicated agent of the communist conspiracy.” Senator Joseph McCarthy accused opponents of siding with the enemy and appeasement.  A Mandarin Chinese term, to kowtow, or knock one’s head, was repurposed to disparage Americans who disagreed with protecting Taiwan and isolating China.

No surprise then that those who defend the hardline against Cuba so often take Cold War rhetoric out of cold storage for use in the debates of today.  Like when the director of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting declared that Cardinal Jaime Ortega was a “lackey” of the Cuban government after the Cardinal facilitated the release of scores of political prisoners.

Or when Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart said in an op-ed, “Since he took office in January 2009, President Obama has pursued a policy of appeasement toward the totalitarian Cuban dictatorship.”  Or when former Rep. David Rivera double-dipped his pen in Cold War ink and called attempts by the Obama administration to free Alan Gross “Efforts at appeasement and kowtowing to the Cuban regime.”

Such word games over who is wearing a Cold War label would have struck our friend Saul Landau, a happy warrior, funny.  Before he succumbed to bladder cancer this week at age 77, Saul liked to say, “Cancer, smancer, as long as I have my health.”

In a week that marked a string of emotional milestones – the 40th anniversary of the coup in Chile, the 15th anniversary of the arrests of the Cuban Five, the 12th anniversary of 9/11 – Saul’s death in a sad but strangely exquisite way, followed the arc of his singular life.

He produced 40 films and 14 books.  He was a poet and an investigative journalist.  He wrote a detective novel at the end of his career and a play for a mime troupe at the beginning.  The New York Times says his activism was triggered during college in Wisconsin where he joined a club “which advocated the recall of Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin over his demagogic attacks on people he accused of being Communists.”

In 1968, after he produced his documentary, “Fidel,” premiers of the film in New York and Los Angeles were cancelled after firebomb attacks on the theaters.

He won an Emmy Award and a George F. Polk Award for his documentary, “Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang,” which recounted how the health effects from a 1957 nuclear test were covered up.

His colleagues at IPS called him “a fearless human rights activist,” and for good reason.  After documenting the election of Salvador Allende as president of Chile, he befriended Orlando Letelier, the country’s ambassador to the U.S., who he then helped save after Gen. Pinochet overthrew Chile’s democratically-elected government and tossed Mr. Letelier in jail.

The coup unleashed a torrent of torture, disappearances, and death in Chile, and the murderous hand of the Pinochet government reached all the way to Embassy Row in Washington.  As Phil Brenner told us, “when Pinochet’s thugs repeatedly threatened his life –- after demonstrating their seriousness by killing Orlando Letelier and Ronni Karpen Moffitt in 1976 –- Saul persevered in unearthing the evidence that led to their convictions and imprisonment.”

As IPS recalled, his last film, “Will the Real Terrorist Please Stand Up?” tells the history of U.S.-Cuba relations through the lens of the Cuban 5.

Year after year, Saul followed the courage of his convictions and then a long list of academics and activists, experienced and emerging, inspired by his work, followed him.

Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archive wrote us, “He was a rare combination of political activist, philosopher provocateur, storyteller, movie maker and modern revolutionary. Perhaps most important, he taught me and others to ‘stir the waters,’ and he set a standard of energy, commitment, and action for us to follow.”

Andres Pertierra wrote in The Nation, “Saul Landau changed my life.  I will never forget him.”

A powerful lesson of the Cold War is captured by the phrase “blowback.”  In Scripture, it is the message of ‘you reap what you sow’.

As Saul demonstrated time and again in his work, when you support coups, when you march your own soldiers into a test zone to watch a nuclear blast, these things have consequences, and can boomerang. And so he said we must act.

A few years ago, a dozen generals wrote President Obama and sounded just such a theme:

“The current policy of isolating Cuba has failed, patently, to achieve our ends …. When world leaders overwhelmingly cast their vote in the United Nations against the embargo and visit Havana to denounce American policy, it is time to change the policy, especially after fifty years of failure in attaining our goals.”

As Saul might have said, Cold Warrior, Cold Smorrior.

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From Guantánamo to Key West: Fresh thinking on Cuba

September 6, 2013

If you are looking for news accounts of Diana Nyad’s swim across the straits, or the still-grounded airplane that can’t fly or broadcast news to Cuba, but can still waste taxpayers’ money, scroll down.

But, if you’re ready for some fresh thinking about U.S. policy toward Cuba, look here.

In a soon-to-be published report, Michael Parmly, former chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, Cuba, offers a detailed plan for addressing the problem of detainees imprisoned at Guantánamo. It deals with migration and refugee resettlement issues, and maintains the Navy’s presence in the Caribbean, while returning to Cuba rightful ownership of territory that’s been under U.S. control for over a century.

Parmly, a veteran U.S. diplomat, served in Cuba during a tumultuous period, when President Bush tried to terminate travel to the island by Cuban Americans, and ramped up regime-change efforts on the island.

The crucial theme sounded in the report centers on the sovereign rights of the Cuban people. Saying that the issue of Guantánamo “goes far beyond the question of the detainees,” Parmly writes: “If we want to be truly democratic about the question, the owners are the Cuban people. Yet they have never been asked their opinion.”

After he establishes the historic foundation for Cuba’s right to the territory, Parmly offers a thoughtful solution for adjudicating the cases of the detainees in ways that protect U.S. security and that, in his view, live up to U.S. obligations on human rights and international law.

Getting there requires diplomacy. Here, Parmly relies on his experience working on the negotiation of the Panama Canal Treaties and his insight into Cuba’s current leadership. He believes that President Raúl Castro would negotiate an agreement in Cuba’s interests that achieves these results.

The case he presents – founded on U.S. economic, foreign policy, and national security interests – complicates the lives of hardline exiles, who argue that Guantánamo should remain a U.S. possession until Cuba’s government is replaced. It will also be controversial for those who have long objected to U.S. conduct of what the previous administration called the global war on terror.

In other words, he suggests infusing fresh, creative thinking into a policy that has been frozen in the amber of its own ineffectiveness two decades after almost everyone celebrated the end of the Cold War.

Mr. Parmly’s paper, published by the Fletcher School of Diplomacy, will be available online later this month in a special edition of Fletcher Forum, marking the school’s 80th anniversary.

In 2009, CDA interviewed Dr. Peter G. Bourne, the Special Assistant on Health Issues during the Carter Administration, about the status of Guantánamo, and former president Fidel Castro’s vision for turning the naval base into an international medical center. The interview is available here.

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