INTERNUTS – U.S. Sanctions Block Cuban Students from On-Line Courses

January 31, 2014

According to the Associated Press, technology experts are gathering in Miami today to “brainstorm ways to improve access to the Internet and information” for the people of Cuba.

Unless their solutions include ending the U.S. embargo, their brainstorms will amount to little more than a light drizzle.

Their meeting occurs at the same moment students in Cuba (as well as Iran, Sudan, and Syria) have lost access to on-line classes offered by Coursera, a social entrepreneurship company which, as Al-Jazeera notes, offers MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses, to millions of students in over 180 countries.

When they try to go to class, students get this message instead:

“Our system indicates that you are attempting to access the Coursera site from an IP address associated with a country currently subject to U.S. economic and trade sanctions.  In order for Coursera to comply with U.S. export controls, we cannot allow you access to the site.”

This cut-off is, of course, big news and, as one Internet expert suggested, very hard to explain:  “My first reaction was anger that the Cuban government would block educational material — maybe they were trying to censor something from a Latin American history class?”

To be sure, Cuba is uncomfortable with the Internet and access to the web is meager compared to its neighbors in the region.  But Cuba is not the cause of this problem.

Cuban students got shut out of their classes because, as the company wrote on its blog, “Under [U.S.] law, certain aspects of Coursera’s course offerings are considered services and are therefore subject to restrictions in sanctioned countries.”

We have often used this page to illustrate the costs and futility of our Cuba policy: the Cuban-American war hero barred from visiting his sons on the island, American diabetics unable to obtain a medication that could save them from amputations, the global condemnation of the U.S. embargo delivered annually by the UN.

But, after our country staked so much of our foreign policy on the Internet as an instrument of free expression, this story takes the cake.

Back in 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made our position clear: “We stand for a single Internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas.” With this declaration as its guiding light, the State Department forged ahead.

The State Department built partnerships between the U.S. government and Internet companies to engage students globally through education. When the Department joined forces with (believe it or not) Coursera, this is what Meghann Curtis, deputy assistant secretary for academic programs said:

“The State Department and USAID promote a more peaceful, prosperous world, and we all know one of the best ways to get there is to ensure that all people have access to high-quality education.”

 How do we “ensure” such a thing?  We get tough.  In November 2012, the United States imposed sanctions on several people in Iran for Internet censorship.  Explaining the action, then-State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that Washington was determined to stop the “Iranian government from creating an ‘electronic curtain’ to cut Iranian citizens off from the rest of the world.”

Or, we get crafty.  In Cuba, our government engages in risky schemes using taxpayers’ money to “boost Internet activism,” as the State Department advertised last year:

“Digital Tools for Safe and Effective Civil Society Initiatives (subject to the availability of funding, approximately $850,000):  The project should provide Cuban activists with ongoing capacity building and assistance to increase their level of technological proficiency and their ability to utilize new and existing technologies in a secure manner.”

This last clause is a reminder to applicants that the Helms-Burton program that funds these initiatives is illegal under Cuban law; just ask Alan Gross.

In other words, U.S. policy has made an implicit choice:  While our sanctions broadly restrict access by Cuban students to educational content on the Internet, the government funds covert activities to give that access selectively to Cubans reached by our regime change programs.

As CDA’s Lisa Ndecky Llanos told Inter Press Service:

 “The stated U.S. policy is that they want to enable Cubans to access information and be a part of a global community, but in this instance the policy is doing the exact opposite of that.”

When Meghann Curtis was interviewed about State’s partnership with Coursera, she told Fast Company magazine: “One of the classes is American foreign policy. I think that will make an extremely rich forum to debate the issues.”

Rich indeed!  One class that Cuban students can’t access is called “21st Century American Foreign Policy,” taught by Professor Bruce Jentleson, whose course description reads:  “What is American foreign policy? Who makes it? Why is it the way it is?”

Why is Cuba policy the way it is?  It tries to fix a Cold War problem with sanctions that do not apply to the Internet Century.  While Coursera meets with well-intentioned Treasury and State Department officials to make the service it offers “not a service,” we think the root of this problem is more akin to a “Flashing 12.”

Know the expression?  That’s when you walk into someone’s house and their VCR is stuck “Flashing 12:00,” because they cannot figure out how to program it.  You just can’t reprogram the embargo to make it work, you have to end it.

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The State of the Union, Executive Power, and Cuba

January 24, 2014

Next week, President Barack Obama will deliver his fourth State of the Union Address before the U.S. Congress.

If this speech is anything like his address last year, he will talk for an hour and not mention Cuba once.

We will be listening for something else – how much the President pegs his program in 2014 on the exercise of his executive authority.  Without descending to an absurd level of tea leaf reading, meaningful hints that his administration will take a muscular approach to moving policy on either domestic or foreign affairs could bode well for action on Cuba.

First, some history: From the election of Thomas Jefferson to the retirement of William Howard Taft, presidents stopped climbing Capitol Hill to make a public address before the U.S. Congress, choosing to submit written statements instead.  President Woodrow Wilson broke the silence with a Congressional address urging passage of legislation to lower barriers to trade.

The larger significance of what Wilson did in 1913 is instructive as we wait for Obama to speak. Wilson’s speech, historians tell us, signaled an ending of absolute Congressional control over policy and the beginning of modern public rhetoric by Presidents to act, appeal to the public, and exert their dominance over the national agenda.

This theme was sounded in a speech about presidential power by then-Senator John F. Kennedy in 1960 as he started to campaign for the White House.  Although Kennedy, a biographer of the Senate’s most courageous figures, was a creature of Congress, he framed his run for the presidency as a response to Congressional inactivity and paralysis, brought on by six years of divided government.

The president, he argued, “must be prepared to exercise the fullest powers of his office – all that are specified and some that are not. He must master complex problems as well as receive one-page memorandums. He must originate action as well as study groups.”

We need, he said, “what the Constitution envisioned: a Chief Executive who is the vital center of action in our whole scheme of Government.”

That view of the presidency is what brought John Podesta, who served as President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff, back into public service as an advisor to Barack Obama.  During the Clinton presidency, Podesta directed efforts that provided environmental protection for federal lands, declassified secret documents, and offered safeguards for medical privacy, during an era of searing partisan conflict and divided government, none of which required Congressional enactments.

In 2010, Podesta wrote a policy guide on executive authority that told readers “The U.S. Constitution and the laws of our nation grant the president significant authority to make and implement policy.”  He said, “President Obama’s ability to govern the country as chief executive presents an opportunity to demonstrate strength, resolve, and a capacity to get things done… Progress, not positioning, is what the public wants and deserves.”

Podesta can now evoke action from Obama as he seeks to secure a legacy for his presidency in this era of divided government.  So, we ask: Why not Cuba?

The preconditions for ending our Cold War policy approach to Cuba, and creating a new, normal relationship that reflects the conditions that prevail today could not be clearer.

  • To meet its own needs, Cuba has adopted sweeping reforms to update its economic model, giving opportunities to nearly a half-million Cubans to earn more money and exercise greater control over their own lives.  If anyone doubts these actions have implications for the island’s political system, read the reporting on what is happening in Holguín below.  These reforms also happen to be in alignment with historic goals of U.S. policy.
  • In the U.S., public support for ending the embargo is high, political assumptions about how candidates win presidential elections in Florida have been upended by President Obama’s last two campaigns, and many Cuban-Americans in Miami, exhausted by our nation’s economic crisis, and freely able to visit and support their families in Cuba, are preoccupied with improving their lives.  Even the staunchest hardliners in Congress have other problems on their minds.
  • Internationally, the European Union, Heads of State throughout Latin America, and the United Nations, have normalized relations with Cuba, confront the U.S. over our policy, or both.  We are out of step with the rest of the world.

The Center for Democracy in the Americas, the Brookings Institution, the Cuba Study Group, and other institutions have long advocated steps the president can take, without waiting for a divided Congress, to reform Cuba policy.  We just need a president to take them.

Hear, again, the words of John Kennedy:  “[T]he White House is not only the center of political leadership. It must be the center of moral leadership–a ‘bully pulpit,’ as Theodore Roosevelt described it.

“For only the President represents the national interest. And upon him alone converge all the needs and aspirations of all parts of the country, all departments of the Government, all nations of the world.”
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Jamming Bridges, Burning Bridges: What is it with politicians from New Jersey?

January 17, 2014

Aren’t there enough reasons to junk our Cold War-era policy toward Cuba?

You’d think so.  The policy doesn’t work.  It hurts the Cuban people.  It infringes on the liberties of Americans barred from visiting the island or doing business there.  It stops world-class Cuban pharmaceuticals from reaching patients here who need them.  It emboldens hardliners in Cuba to slow down their government’s economic reforms.  It boomerangs against the United States in Latin America.  It isolates the U.S. internationally.  It stops our government from negotiating for the release of the imprisoned USAID subcontractor Alan Gross.

The list goes on.  Each rationale for replacing the policy is powerful by itself.  But if you put them together, even after you add President Obama’s reasonable reforms on travel and remittances and negotiating with Cuba on matters like migration, the essence of the policy – harsh sanctions and diplomatic isolation – remains in place…undisturbed, seemingly impervious to knowledge and reason.

Is there nothing that will cause the executive branch to do needs to be done?  Is there no principle or no new fact, no new argument that will spur them to action?

Anything?  Anyone?

Two astute observers of national security, Yochi Dreazen and John Hudson, may have solved the puzzle.  Follow their logic.

In Pennsylvania Avenue’s Cold War, they depict a White House and U.S. State Department striving to salvage a “once-in-a-generation opportunity to keep Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons,” an agreement put at risk by the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Bob Menendez, a member of the president’s political party, and the senior Senator from the State of New Jersey.

By introducing legislation (which has bipartisan support in the Senate) that will scuttle their diplomatic solution, Menendez, as the White House sees it, is dragging the U.S. perilously close to starting a war with Iran.

“The lobbying campaign against Menendez’s bill – which would impose expansive new sanctions on Iran if the current nuclear negotiations fail – highlights his surprising emergence as one of the White House’s leading congressional adversaries (on a number of Obama priorities, including Cuba).”

Dreazen and Hudson write that “Menendez’s hard-line positions on the Cuban issue could leave him vulnerable to White House retaliation,” and suggest “the administration could decide to punish Menendez for his support of the Iran sanctions bill” by making a series of overdue reforms in Cuba policy, such as opening the island to more travel by Americans or strengthening bilateral relations.

“If I’m president and I want to stick it to Menendez,” a Congressional aide says, “I would take it out on his Cuba policy.”

For burning bridges with the President on Iran, could the White House send some payback in Menendez’s direction by making progress on Cuba?

Yes it could.

Of course, they wouldn’t call it retaliation.  They wouldn’t have to; there are ample justifications to reform the policy on the merits.

They could point to last year’s travel reforms implemented by Raúl Castro’s government that have already enabled 185,000 Cubans to travel abroad in the last year alone.

They could highlight the decisions being taken now by the European Union that put normalizing relations with Cuba toward the center of its foreign policy agenda.

They could acknowledge the need for bilateral cooperation on matters like the environment by highlighting Cuba’s decision to resume drilling for oil in the Gulf of Mexico in 2015.

They could side with scores of his Senate colleagues who wrote President Obama that Alan Gross needs to be returned home, and he should “take whatever steps are in the national interest” to negotiate with Cuba for his release.

Foreign policy expert Steve Clemons has written about Bob Menendez and his efforts to thwart reasonable reforms on Cuba since 2007.  He argued recently that the senior Senator from New Jersey had become the Democrats’ Jesse Helms for his broader role as an obstacle to change from his perch on Senate Foreign Relations.  Clemons has wisely focused on how reforming Cuba policy would have strategic echoes benefiting the United States across Latin America and the world.

He and others make these arguments because, in the Obama era, substance matters.  The nuts and bolts of politics are known to be foreign to them; so much so, Politico reports, when Senators were invited to relax with the President at the White House and they read “cocktails” on the invitation, they thought they saw a misprint.

If even schmoozing seems like a remote concept is action on Cuba even conceivable as a message to Menendez on Iran?  We don’t know.  But, this could be even more exciting than Governor Christie stopping traffic on the George Washington Bridge.

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Gates, Walls and Doors

January 10, 2014

Not long after President Obama returned to The White House from his holiday vacation, he was greeted by headlines in the national press about attacks on his leadership by his former Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates.

In leaks from his forthcoming memoir, “Duty,” Mr. Gates writes of Obama’s skepticism toward his own policy on Afghanistan.  “For him,” he writes, “it’s all about getting out.”

While Bob Woodward, like others in the ranks of Washington pundits, reported this as a “harsh judgment” against the President’s leadership on national security, Ron Fournier, writing in the National Journal, took a more sympathetic view.

Where Gates attacks the President for complaining about a policy he inherited and for doubting his own commanders, Fournier writes:  “We need more of that.”

According to Fournier, the President was reflecting the desires of the public to exit two unpopular wars, and demonstrating the kind of skepticism, curiosity, and reflection that is the president’s job.  In other words, President Obama was leading by following the better angels of his nature to where they might lead him.

Before his election in 2008, President Obama said, “It is time for us to end the embargo against Cuba.”  He justified his position by saying the policy had not helped Cubans enjoy rising living standards; instead, it squeezed innocents and didn’t improve human rights.  “It’s time for us to acknowledge” he said, “that particular policy had failed.”

While then-Senator Obama adhered to the traditional goals of U.S. foreign policy toward Cuba, he also acknowledged the simple reality that the embargo failed to achieve them.

We don’t expect President Obama to seek repeal of the embargo anytime soon, but we do believe that 2014 could be a year of greater openings toward Cuba, even if it means the President has to be the same kind of leader that made Robert Gates so angry.

After all, he has done it before.  In reopening Cuba to travel by Americans of Cuban descent, restoring categories of people-to-people travel, and negotiating with the Cuban government on issues such as migration and postal service, we saw the President set aside the views of his opponents, and even members of his own party, like Senator Bob Menendez, to put forward important and effective policy reforms that reflect his principles, his pragmatism, and the views of the American public writ large.

Going forward, there is much that President Obama can do using his executive authority.

Like many of our allies, The Center for Democracy in the Americas supports making all forms of people-to-people travel possible using a general license.

We strongly support direct negotiations with Cuba’s government to produce an action plan on the environment –so essential as Cuba looks to resume oil drilling in 2015– and ending the bar on Cuba’s participation in next year’s Summit of the Americas, which would give the United States a greater opening in Latin America more broadly. In addition, our research on gender equality in Cuba has led us to support policies to help Cuban women weather the transition in the island’s economy and provide real support for Cubans who choose to open small businesses.

In his epic song, Muros y Puertas, our friend Carlos Varela writes, “Since the world began, one thing has been certain, some people build walls, while others open doors.”

In 2014, we hope the President’s policy continues to reflect just this spirit of openness.  It is better to open doors  than build walls, or even Gates, for that matter.

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