Adventures in Exceptionalism

We offer these thoughts a few days before the UN General Assembly votes on a resolution condemning the United States for the embargo against Cuba.

“For decades,” journalist Marc Frank reminds us in Cuban Revelations, “Cubans who left the island – especially for the United States – were considered traitors who were joining a foreign power’s attempts to overthrow the nation.”

In Cuba, this was the government’s rationale for restricting the liberties of all Cubans to leave and return to their country as they pleased.  But, a little more than two years ago, President Raúl Castro issued a strong signal that the weather was going to change.

Speaking before Cuba’s National Assembly, Castro said: “Today, the overwhelming number of Cubans are émigrés for economic reasons…What is a fact is that almost all of them maintain their love for the family and the homeland of their birth and, in different ways, demonstrate solidarity toward their compatriots.”

In January of this year, nearly all travel restrictions on Cubans were dismantled. Now, as we have noted previously, Cubans who want to travel to the U.S. face fewer restrictions than nearly all U.S. residents who want to travel to Cuba.  President Obama acted wisely to repeal the harsh restrictions his predecessor imposed on family travel in 2004. Now, the right of Cuban Americans to visit their families on the island is unlimited.  Upwards of 350,000 exercised that right just last year.

The president also reopened channels for people-to-people travel and, as we reported last week, non-Cuban American travel to Cuba has hit peak levels.  But, if you look at the numbers for 2012, you will see that the more than one million Canadians, more than 150,000 travelers from the U.K., and over one-hundred thousand tourists from Germany, Italy, and France exceeded the Americans (98,050) who got to visit Cuba, and none of them had to apply to their governments for a “license” in order to go.  We were the exception.


It is not new that the United States is criticized by friend and foe alike.  In October, however, the U.S. image has taken a pounding overseas; and, to be clear, this not a public relations problem.  The drumbeat got louder and more insistent over much larger issues.

Criticism of the U.S. spiked when the U.S. government was shut down, the nation’s credit rating was at risk, and Congress frightened bondholders and contractors with the threat that we would not pay our bills. China called for a “de-Americanized world.” A columnist in The Guardian wrote: “The rottenness of modern Washington makes outsiders gasp.”

Strong stuff, but nothing in comparison to the uproar caused by revelations that the growing global scandal over surveillance by the National Security Agency now encompassed the private communications of 35 world leaders.  This will multiply the backlash the U.S. already felt when Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff cancelled a state visit over reports of U.S. snooping in her country and her private office.

Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel, is especially incensed.  As USA Today reports, she told President Obama that “spying among friends cannot be,” there needs to be trust among allies and partners, and that “such trust now has to be built anew.”

Foreign Policy is reporting that Germany and Brazil are joining forces “to press for the adoption of a U.N. General Resolution that promotes the right of privacy on the Internet,” that would extend the coverage of Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to the online world.

This Article states “no one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his honor and reputation,” and that “everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.”

If the amendment happens what difference will make it?  The U.S. Senate waited sixteen years to adopt the covenant and, when it did so, it added fourteen reservations, understandings, and declarations that so denuded its force that scholars said the U.S. had perpetrated a fraud on the global community.

Two weeks ago, the United States was among 15 member nations scheduled to have their human rights records reviewed by a UN committee in Geneva, and NSA spying was already “slated for discussion.”  But, the U.N. Human Rights Committee cancelled the U.S. review and rescheduled it for March 2014.

“The USA highlights its regret at having to make such a request, which is due to the ongoing government shutdown,” the committee said.  Fourteen other countries were reviewed.  For the U.S., they had to make an exception.


On October 29th, when the General Assembly votes on its 22nd resolution to condemn the U.S. embargo on Cuba, the U.S. will again stand virtually alone in asserting the rightness of our views.  In President Obama’s first term, Ambassador Ronald Godard argued that the U.N. had no business even debating the question, because the U.S. had a “sovereign right” to punish Cuba for its political system as part of its bilateral policies.  “Butt out;” he seemed to say, “this is America’s right to do as it pleases.”

This idea, grounded in the notion of American exceptionalism, so pervasive in U.S. foreign policy, combines our faith in the “rightness of our cause” with our overwhelming power.

Recent events demonstrate just how damaging this attitude can be.  It leads this country to impose its will in ways that hurt our interests internationally, harms the alleged beneficiaries locally, and causes them to turn against us politically.

The embargo may seem a small thing to many in the U.S.  It is, in fact, a much larger and more powerful symbol than many understand.  Reversing it will not only help Cubans lead better lives, it could be a small step in a bigger effort to change how the U.S. is perceived and received in the world.  Someday, we hope that President Obama acts to dismantle the embargo, remove all travel restrictions, and put us on course for a normal relationship with Cuba.

It won’t solve all of our problems.  But it would make him truly exceptional.


Cuba begins process of unifying currencies

Cuba’s Council of Ministers has agreed to put a timeline of measures into effect that will end the country’s dual currency system, announced state newspaper Granma on Tuesday. The measures, originally approved by the 6th Congress of the Communist Party in April 2011, call for monetary and exchange rate unification with “careful preparation and execution.”

The dual currency system has existed since 1994, when Cuba legalized the U.S. dollar. Subsequently, the dollar was circulated in tandem with the CUP until the latter was replaced in 2004 by the CUC. The CUC was created as a form of national hard currency pegged to the dollar, functioning as the main tender in tourism and international trade, while the CUP is used for the most part to pay state salaries. Cubans have since continued to receive their official state salaries in CUP, worth around 24-to-1 to the CUC at official exchange houses. That rate is subsidized for state entities, making the two currencies equal in official sector transactions.

“The main changes in this first phase will be in the business sector to foster conditions that will lead to increased efficiency, better measurement of performance and the stimulation of sectors that produce goods and services for export and the substitution of imports,” reports Granma.

The article concedes that while the new measures will not solve “all of the economy’s current problems,” unification of the currency is necessary to ensure “the reestablishment of the value of the Cuban peso [CUP] and its role as money that is a unit of accounting, means of payment and savings.” Complete unification of the Cuban peso (CUP) and the convertible peso (CUC), likely through the devaluation of the CUC and the revaluation of the CUP, may take up to 18 months, reports Reuters.

Opinions about the announced proposal have ranged amongst Cubans, reports NBC News. Notes a gas station attendant: “It is about time this rumor finally became true. I like the idea that our ordinary national currency will be used everywhere and that we will not have to change it into CUC to buy things. I support the change, but we must check that prices do not rise while wages remain as low as they are.” A primary school teacher adds: “I think it is good that the Cuban peso be the one that matters, although for me what is important is that my salary have real value, and that it allows me to live, which until now it does not. Let’s see.”

Increased trade between farmers and tourism sector goes into effect

New resolutions from the Ministries of Agriculture, Finance and Prices and Tourism went into effect increasing direct sales between private farmers and state-run tourist accommodations, reports Ansa Latina. These resolutions will allow a wider range of products and services to be commercialized. New products and services allowed into commerce include floral arrangements, rice for consumption, spices, gardening services and dry condiments.


Chief of Cuban Interests Section visits Chicago

The Chief of the Cuban Interests Section, José Ramón Cabañas Rodríguez, visited Chicago, Illinois this week to meet with Cuban-Americans, academics and business leaders, reports Chicago Business. This is the first instance of a high-ranking official from Cuba visiting Chicago since 1999. Rodríguez will look to focus on trade and possibilities for collaboration between Chicago and Cuba. The U.S. allows food to be shipped to Cuba although there are strict regulations, and Cuba imports over half of its food. Exports out of Illinois have increased over the past year, with its biggest exports being meat and dairy products.

In January of 2013, news outlets highlighted the state of Virginia’s apple exports to Cuba, totaling around $1 million per year.

U.S. religious leaders push for President Obama to normalize relations with Cuba

U.S. religious leaders from Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox and ecumenical institutions wrote a letter to President Obama urging him to normalize relations with Cuba, reports Prensa Latina. Rev. John L. McCullough, President of Church World Service, and others expressed gratitude toward President Obama for lifting some U.S. travel restrictions to Cuba in 2011, but stressed that much more needs to be done. They urged President Obama to:

 “Initiate direct, high-level dialogue with the Cuban government, exercise your executive authority to remove Cuba from the United States’ list of state sponsors of terrorism and exercise your executive authority to lift all restrictions on purposeful people-to-people travel between the United States and Cuba.”

Prensa Latina also reported that religious colleagues in Cuba support this letter and similarly echo their calls for the removal of Cuba from the U.S. state sponsors of terrorism list, given that there has been no evidence that Cuba provides weapons or training to terrorist groups.

To read the letter, see here.

U.S. ambassador to the UN meets with Oswaldo Payá’s daughter

Samantha Power, the U.S. Ambassador to the UN, met with Rosa María Payá, the daughter of late Cuban dissident Oswaldo Payá this week, reports the Associated Press. The meeting occurred after Power spoke to Cuba’s Foreign Minister at the UN and asked that an investigation be opened into Payá’s death. Power communicated to Ms. Payá her support for an “international/independent investigation” into her father’s death. Power also met recently with well-known Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez.

Parliamentary Confederation of the Americas condemns U.S. embargo against Cuba

At the 12th General Assembly of the Parliamentary Confederation of the Americas (COPA) in Brazil, parliamentary members approved a Declaration which condemns the U.S. embargo against Cuba, reports Prensa Latina. The Declaration was presented by the Commission of Health and Social Protection within COPA and denounces the negative impacts that the embargo has on the health of Cubans. It stresses that restrictions on the acquisition of pharmaceuticals, sanitary products, medical equipment and instruments violate human rights and laws of the UN.

Relatedly, a panel of specialists in Cuba spoke out against the negative effects of the embargo on many sectors including health, reports AFP and the Latin American Herald Tribune. In particular, Dr. Lorenzo Anasagasti, Deputy Director of Research at the Oncology Institute of Havana, stressed that the embargo continues to harm those who are already sick, researchers, science, and even U.S. citizens. The embargo impedes Cuba’s ability to acquire the best medications and radiotherapy equipment that could help Cubans suffering from cancer. Patients in the U.S. are also unable to benefit from scientific information and access to Cuban biotechnology products due to the embargo.

30-year anniversary of U.S. invasion of Grenada

October 25th marks the 30th anniversary of “Operation Urgent Fury” in Grenada, a small island off the coast of Venezuela, reports the Miami Herald. The invasion was ordered by former U.S. president Ronald Reagan, due to concerns about Cuba’s assistance to Grenada in building a military-capable airport in the island. This episode is remembered as the only instance in which U.S. and Cuban troops fought directly. In the four-day battle, 19 U.S. soldiers were killed, along with 25 Cuban soldiers, 45 Grenadians in the People’s Revolutionary Army (PRA) and 24 civilians. The invasion was condemned in a United Nations General Assembly vote of 108 to 9, according to the Zinn Education Blog.


India’s Vice President Ansari to visit Cuba next week; Chile’s President Piñera to visit Cuba in 2014

India’s Vice President Hamid Ansari will be in Cuba next week, reports Prensa Latina. The Indian delegation of over 100 people will also attend a festival to celebrate Indian culture. Film screenings of top Bollywood films will be shown in Havana, reports International Business Times. In addition to cultural exchange, representatives from the two countries will discuss cooperation in biotechnology as well as sports, and India will be sending buses for Cuba’s public transportation system.

Also, President Sebastián Piñera will make his last international as Chile’s president visit to Cuba before leaving offBrazice, reports Diario Financiero. The visit will take place next year before the new President assumes office in March. President Piñera will use time at the third summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) to be held in Cuba at the beginning of January, to say farewell to his fellow heads of state in the region and thank them for their support in Chile’s successful bid for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

Ghana calls for U.S. to lift embargo on Cuba

In a governmental statement, Ghana’s Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister, Thomas Quartey said the United States should lift the embargo on Cuba, reports Business Day. Quartey said this while he was meeting with Cuba’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Teresa Fraga. Medicine, agriculture, and science were among the topics discussed in said meeting.

Brazil’s President Rousseff publicly apologizes to Cuban doctor who was insulted

President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil publicly apologized to a Cuban doctor, Juan Delgado, who was insulted upon his arrival to Brazil, reports Havana Times. Dr. Delgado is part of a contingent of Cuban doctors hired by Brazil’s government to work in the more remote areas of the country where access to health care is severely limited.

Cuban doctors arriving in Fortaleza, Brazil, including Dr. Delgado, were greeted by Brazilian doctors shouting the word, “slaves.” President Rousseff subsequently apologized both personally and on behalf of the Brazilian government for Dr. Delgado’s treatment.

This week, President Rousseff signed the “More Doctors” program into law, which enables the Brazilian Ministry of Health to contract foreign doctors and send them to areas where Brazilian doctors are unwilling to travel or provide services.

This program, an agreement among Brazil, Cuba and the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), and the arrival of Cuban doctors has angered many Brazilian doctors.  Although the program has been unpopular with many Brazilian doctors, a survey found that nearly 74% of Brazilians support the move to bring Cuban doctors to under-served regions of the country, reports the Latin American Herald Tribune.

Cuba will accept Venezuelan delinquent youth for rehabilitation program

Venezuela’s government announced it will send delinquent youth convicted of minor crimes to Cuba for a rehabilitation program, reports AFP/El Faro. For youths who turned over their weapons, this program, which involves “specific training,” was used as an incentive, said Wandolay Martínez, Venezuela’s Vice-Minister of Citizen Security. Martínez emphasized that these incentives are not intended to give impunity to Venezuelan youths who commit crimes, reports Diario de Cuba. It is not clear how many delinquent youths will be sent to Cuba.

Around the Region

U.S. lawmakers alert Sec. Kerry of potential electoral problems in Honduras; U.S. urges free and fair elections

A week after U.S. lawmakers sent Secretary of State John Kerry a letter alerting him of the potential for electoral fraud in Honduras, U.S. State Department officials expressed their desire to see free and fair elections in the country, reports AFP. The letter, co-written by Representatives Raúl Grijalva (AZ-3), Hank Johnson (GA-4) and Mike Honda (CA-17), warned Secretary Kerry about state security forces taking over Honduran institutions and creating a new military police force to deal with organized crime.

Following release of the letter, a State Department official told AFP that Washington was seeking to “encourage Honduran citizens to exercise their democratic right to vote peacefully and lawfully.” Speaking on background, the US official said, “We also call on all candidates, as well as party and electoral officials, to ensure that Hondurans’ democratic engagement is fully respected through a fair and transparent electoral process.”

Elections in Honduras are set to take place on November 24th, with Xiomara Castro of the Libre party holding a tight lead in the polls. These elections will be closely watched, as Castro is the wife of deposed former president Manuel Zelaya, who was removed from office by coup in 2009.

El Salvador’s Catholic Church unwilling to turn over Tutela Legal documents to officials

Although law enforcement officials obtained a court order to search the Tutela Legal office last week, they were unable to view or secure its archives, reports The Pan-American Post. The Archdiocese refused to allow law enforcement to examine Tutela Legal documents and reached an agreement with Julio Arriaza, the public prosecutor of the case, allowing the Catholic Church to retain possession of the files. Archbishop José Luis Escobar Alas told reporters that, “The archive belongs to the Church, and we are not going to allow anyone to take away any part of it.”

Archbishop Escobar Alas further claims that he has no intentions of manipulating the information contained in the documents and that the Church will always be willing to cooperate with the authorities, reports La Prensa Gráfica.

Venezuela tests voting system for municipal elections

The National Electoral Council of Venezuela (CNE) conducted a simulation for the municipal elections set to take place on December 8th, reports Europa Press. The simulation was used to test the different aspects of the electoral system from logistical, technical, technological and human standpoints. Nearly 78,000 people voted at the pilot centers and about a half of a million people participated in total. Almost 3,000 primary voting machines and 474 back-up machines were tested. Simulations took place at 421 voting centers. Whereas conservative opposition candidates have criticized Venezuela’s voting system in the past, this time the electoral commission of the opposition Democratic Unity (MUD) coalition expressed satisfaction with the simulation, reports Venezuelanalysis.

Recommended Reading

Private Initiative Finds Garbage Profitable in Cuba, Patricia Grogg, IPS

This article features interviews with Cuba’s waste pickers and recyclers, whose livelihoods have recently been approved as a form of cuentapropismo. The island has two cooperatives dedicated to waste recovery and recycling, and Cuba’s government hopes that the country’s 168 municipalities will all eventually have such cooperatives. One woman, Odilia Ferro, has been collecting and selling recyclable waste for decades says she used to sell aluminum, bronze, steel, plastic, and empty glass bottles to a state-run salvage company, which according to the article has since become a nine-member cooperative, with four women. Of this change she says, “The good thing is that now they always have money to buy what you bring them, and in cash.”

‘Operation Peter Pan’ tells heartbreaking story of Cuban children’s deportation to U.S. Humberto Dasilva,

Operation Peter Pan is a new documentary that tells the story of the counter-revolutionary psychological operation that persuaded Cuban parents to send their children to the U.S. alone out of fear that Cuba’s government would strip them of their parental rights and send their children to the Soviet Union. This article delves into the history of this operation, and argues that instead of protecting children and parental rights as claimed, it destroyed both.

American friends launch first kosher tour of Cuba, Barbara Lewis, The Jewish Chronicle

This article profiles two Jewish women with a mutual fascination for Cuba and their efforts to create a tour business for Jewish-Americans to travel to Cuba and interact with the Jewish community there. After leading many delegations to Cuba, Miriam Saul and Marla Whitesman, formed Other Cuban Journeys, which will launch the first kosher trip to Cuba this December and are flexible at customizing trips around interests ranging from history and architecture to medicine and sustainable living.

Alameda County health clinic network for neediest, Stephanie M. Lee, SFGate

In Alameda County in California, there are about 70 community clinics offering affordable health care to low-income and underinsured people.  This article explores how the inspiration for these clinics is rooted in Cuba, as Alameda County officials and public health professionals studied and researched Cuba’s system of nationalized health care and strategies for cost-effectiveness. Stephanie M. Lee cites Director of Alameda County’s Health Care Services Agency, Alex Briscoe, saying:

“In the United States, the traditional attitude toward health care is: ‘Wait your turn, do what the doctor says.’ What Cuba and other progressive health systems do is focus on patient empowerment and education. How do we engage more effectively our patients in their own care?”

Havana’s New Handmade Soap Store, Yusimi Rodríguez, Havana Times

Yusimi Rodríguez interviews Sandra Aldama Suarez, the owner of “D’Brujas” (Witchcraft), a shop that sells handmade soap made with natural materials and herbal concoctions without using chemicals. Suarez discusses her journey as a small business owner, and customer’s responses to her products.

Cuba to open tax free Special Economic Zone, Chris Arsenault, Al Jazeera

In this article, Chris Arsenault offers details on the Special Economic Zone planned for Cuba’s Mariel Port, and the varied takes on how its creation might affect trade for the country. The article details some of the criticisms surrounding the Zone and discusses whether Cuba will have a different experience from countries that have implemented similar zones but had easy access to U.S. markets.

Recommended Viewing

Sisters reunited after 60 years in St. Louis, KPLR St. Louis

Three Cuban sisters were able to see each other again in Missouri, after being separated for 60 years. Rosa, the sister of Ina Jenner and Gloria González, who is now 86 years old, was able to travel to the United States to see her sisters after obtaining a five-year visa. The United States began a new policy this year of allowing 5-year, multiple entry non-immigrant visas to Cubans, which also greatly reduces the wait times for a visa.

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