Jamming Bridges, Burning Bridges: What is it with politicians from New Jersey?

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.

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

State Department seeks ‘new relationship’ with Cuba

Alex Lee, Deputy Assistant Secretary at the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, speaking to international press in Havana following migration talks held with Cuban officials last week, said that “the United States wants a new relationship with Cuba,” reports the BBC. Secretary Lee is quoted as saying:

“We are open to having that relationship. We, at the same time, want to have that opening reflect from the Cuban side a respect for Cubans to express themselves freely…To be able to petition their government with grievances without the danger of them being arrested. … In the meantime, we are working on these sets of rather narrowly defined areas of cooperation.”

Lee also commented favorably on Cuba’s elimination of the exit visa requirement for Cubans that took effect a year ago this month. Lee stated that the U.S. granted more than 32,000 tourist and work visas to Cubans in the last fiscal year, which represents a 100% increase, reports Havana Times.

Former Florida Gov. and BP Spill Investigator visits Cuba

Bob Graham, who has served as Florida’s governor, a U.S. Senator,  and co-chair of the National Commission on the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, joined a delegation to Cuba this week to discuss offshore oil drilling with Cuban officials, reports Cuba Standard. The delegation, organized by the Council on Foreign Relations, also included William K. Reilly, who served as Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Dan Whittle of the Environmental Defense Fund. Graham told the Naples Daily News:

It’s very important for the nation, and particularly important for Florida, that any drilling done in that area be done at a very high standard of safety and with the capability to respond if there is an accident.”

According to Graham, the purpose of the trip was “to talk to the Cubans, try to better understand what their plans are, what their capabilities are, and, frankly, how the international community (…) can cooperate in a way to ensure that Cuba drills at the highest level of international safety standards.” Graham continues to support sanctions against Cuba, but has advocated in recent years for increased U.S.-Cuba cooperation on energy matters concerning the Gulf of Mexico. He told Naples Daily News:

“The consequences of failure are not going to be on Havana, but are going to be on South Florida. The nature of the currents are going to carry the oil to the northeast and then to the north.”

Reuters reported that Graham was criticized for making the trip by embargo supporters.  Mauricio Claver-Carone, quoted in his role as Executive Director of the Cuba Democracy Public Advocacy (organized for lobbying Congress), called the visit “completely illogical and comes close to ridiculous.”

According to Café Fuerte U.S. Representative Joe García (FL-26) defended the former governor saying: “Bob Graham is a patriot, a man who has never betrayed his community and who has legitimate concerns about issues that could affect the environment that we share with Cuba.”

Drilling in the Gulf of Mexico is one of a number of areas of mutual interest that has recently posed as a nexus for the U.S. and Cuba. Officials from both countries met in Tampa in November to develop and oil spill cooperation plan.

The Center for Democracy in the Americas wrote a report in 2011, “As Cuba plans to drill in the Gulf of Mexico, U.S. policy poses needless risks to our national interest,” which calls for increased cooperation between the U.S. and Cuba in its environmental emergency response plans.

Cubans will study at Miami Dade College through program with USAID-funded organization

Seventeen Cuban students will spend a semester studying at Miami Dade College this spring, reports the Associated Press. The Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba, a USAID-supported organization that works to promote “a nonviolent transition to a free and democratic Cuba,” is funding the exchange, which was not made in collaboration with any Cuban university. Though a spokesperson of the Foundation said that political standing “doesn’t matter,” and Rolando Montoya, provost Miami Dade Collegesaid that that the program shouldn’t be “interpreted as something political,” it appears that those selecting the group favored Cubans who have publicly positioned themselves in opposition of the government, La Alborada writes in an opinion piece. Juan Tamayo writes for the Miami Herald:

“Among them are three well-known government critics: Raudel Collazo of the rap group Escuadron Patriota-Patriot Squadron; graffiti artist Danilo Maldonado, known as El Sexto; and blogger Henry Constantin, who was expelled from the University of Oriente in 2006 and the Marta Abreu University in Villa Clara in 2008.

Four are children of dissidents, including Lienys Moya Soler, daughter of Ladies in White leader Berta Soler and former political prisoner Angel Moya; and Saylí Navarro, active in the Ladies in White and daughter of former political prisoner Felix Navarro. She was expelled from the law school in Matanzas in 2010.”

Although an increasing number of U.S. institutions offer academic programs and visits to Cuba, programs in the U.S. for Cuban students are far rarer. Only eight J-1 visas, which are used by visiting students and professionals, were granted to Cubans in 2012.

Secretary of State appeals to Holy See for help freeing Alan Gross

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to the Vatican this week and met with Archbishop Pietro Parolin, the Holy See’s Secretary of State and top aide to Pope Francis, reports Reuters. Following the meeting, Secretary Kerry said that he had raised the issue of Cuba with his counterpart:

“We talked also about Cuba and the need for respect for freedom of religion and freedom of, and respect for, human rights….I raised the issue of Alan Gross and his captivity, and we hope very much that there might be able to be assistance with respect to that issue.”

Gross, a former USAID subcontractor,was arrested in 2009 and convicted of threatening the sovereignty of the Cuban state.  He is currently serving a 15-year prison sentence. Investigative journalist Tracey Eaton has written extensively on Gross’ case and USAID programs on the island as part of collaboration with the Center for Democracy in the Americas.

U.S. and Cuba exchange artists

One of Cuba’s National Museums will host an exhibition featuring artwork by a Florida artist, and several Cuban artists will travel to Florida, constituting the first exchange of its kind in many decades, reports TIME Magazine. Works by Mario Sánchez, a late Key West folk artist descended from Cuban immigrants, will be shown at Cuba’s Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. In addition, several Cuban artists will travel to Key West, Florida, in February to complete residencies and exhibitions. Nance Frank, the Florida-based curator who arranged Sánchez’ show in Havana, reportedly hopes the exchange will help Americans change their ideas of Cuba.

University of Tampa baseball team, Brown University jazz band visit Cuba

This week, the University of Tampa’s championship baseball team spent a week in Cuba to participate in exhibition games against Cuba’s youth squad, reports the Associated Press. Joe Urso, the head coach of Tampa’s team stated:

“Sports bring people together… And when you talk about the history of Tampa and the Cuban roots that we have in Tampa, to be able to come here and play baseball against them, win or lose isn’t the most important thing.”

Jose Luis Boss, the manager of the Havana team, stated:

“These exchanges are important because the ties of friendship … help a lot. Other teams have come and fraternized with other players from Cuba, and it builds up. …Tomorrow others may come, and the day after that one of them may become president. …And one day they may be the ones who fix what has happened for years between these governments.”

Students from Brown University in Rhode Island also embarked on a visit to Cuba this week, reports AP. The students are members of Brown’s jazz band and will participate in performances and exchanges with local musicians and educators. The AP reports that the group received a special federal license for the trip, which is being funded by the office of the president of the university.

Former Cuban migrant sues U.S. Coast Guard

Alexis Viera Borges filed a federal lawsuit in Key West against the U.S. Coast Guard for negligence related to injuries he sustained from a collision with a Coast Guard vessel while attempting to reach Florida from Cuba in May, 2012, reports Florida Keys News. One of the Coast Guard vessels collided with the boat Borges was sharing with 20-30 other migrants, causing him to fall into the ocean where his leg was struck by the propeller of the Coast Guard vessel. He alleges that he did not receive proper medical care from the Coast Guard after the incident. José E. Martínez, U.S. District Judge, has been assigned to the case, which does not yet have a trial date. Borges was treated at a hospital in Florida and allowed to remain in the U.S. All other migrants aboard his vessel were repatriated to Cuba.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Debate of EU’s Common Position toward Cuba indefinitely postponed, EU diplomat hints at revision

The debate on the European Union’s Common Position toward Cuba has been indefinitely postponed, reports Progreso Weekly. Foreign ministers from the European Union were originally scheduled to debate the EU’s policy toward Cuba, which dictates trade and diplomatic ties, on January 20th.

In implementing its foreign policy, the European Union is staffed by its “External Action Service,” or diplomatic corps.  According to the Progreso Weekly report, the debate on the Common position was deferred as the External Action Service ‘fine-tunes’ an Agreement for Political Dialogue and Cooperation with Cuba  which could potentially replace the Common Position. AFP quoted an EU diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity who said that experts from EU member states agreed this week “on the principle of reviewing relations with Cuba.” Last weekFrans Timmermans, the Dutch Foreign Minister, called upon the EU to update its Common Position toward the nation to move away from an isolationist stance.

FARC peace talks resume in Havana

The Colombian government and FARC rebel leaders have returned to the negotiating table in Havana after a three-week recess, reports Reuters. The parties are seeking an end to the country’s decades-long internal conflict. The Colombian government prioritizes a peace deal before entering a ceasefire – one of FARC’s main goals. Negotiations in 2013 have already yielded a general agreement on rebel participation in politics post-conflict and agrarian reform. Current talks center on the issues of drug trafficking, disarmament, reparations for war victims, and human rights violators.

Colombians will elect a new congress in March and return to the polls in May for the presidential election. Colombia’s President, Juan Manuel Santos, hopes to end the ongoing conflict through negotiation, and says:

“I am convinced that we have the conditions to achieve peace and it has to be dignified peace for both sides. Nobody is expecting rebels to kneel down and surrender. We are seeking a dignified way out for both parts, to bring an end to the conflict.”

He is opposed in the election by Oscar Ivan Zuloaga, nominated by former President Uribe’s Democratic Center Party, who plans to end the talks and defeat the FARC militarily if elected.

Portugal to extend for-pay Cuban medical service

Paulo Macedo, Portugal’s Minister of Health, conveyed his intent to extend the country’s “positive” for-pay Cuban medical service program first implemented in 2008, reports Cuba Standard. The current contract on the medical service that expires this month has sent 39 Cuban doctors to eighteen small Portuguese towns lacking in primary care services. Portugal spends approximately $1.32 million on these services each year. Cuba provides for-pay medical services to many countries including Venezuela, Brazil, Ecuador, South Africa, Angola, Algeria, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

President Castro meets with Japanese minister

President Raúl Castro met with Keiji Furuya, a Japanese state minister for the North Korea abductee issue and head of the Japan-Cuba Friendship Parliamentary League, reports state news agency ACN. Furuya was joined by the vice-president of the Parliamentary organization, Yukio Ubukata, while Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel and Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez accompanied President Castro.

IN CUBA

Cuba warns state enterprises to increase efficiency or face closure

Cuba’s government warned unproductive state-run enterprises that they could face closure if unable to raise productivity, reports Progreso Weekly. A Granma article published Monday referenced the 2011 Economic Guidelines of the Party and Revolution, which stipulate two actions that can result from inefficient state-run enterprises. The Guidelines state:

“The state-run enterprises or cooperatives that consistently show financial losses in their balance sheets or an insufficient labor force, that cannot pay with their assets the obligations they have contracted, or that present negative results in financial audits, will be submitted to a process of liquidation or can be transformed into other forms of non-state management.”

In addition to emphasizing the efficiency of state enterprises,as a part of ongoing economic reforms, Cuba’s government has increasingly opened ways for the state sector to form partnerships with non-state enterprises, for example legalizing the contracting of cooperatives or self-employed workers in certain sectors.

Cuba extends access to credit for kitchen supplies

Cuba’s government has expanded reforms for accessing credit to include the purchase of kitchenware, reports state official newspaper Granma. In December 2011, Cuba’s government undertook reforms that enable certain individuals to access credit, including small producers, self-employed workers, and persons needing to purchase construction materials.

Last month, Cuba’s government relaxed loan requirements for small businesses. The latest expansion of these reforms aim to help individuals purchase designated kitchen supplies, such as pressure cookers and pot and pan sets, which will be available for cash or credit from both stores that sell in Cuban Pesos (CUP) and stores that sell in Convertible Pesos (CUC). The announcement specifies that credit purchases can be in the form of checks or any other bank-issued method. The bank will determine a repayment plan for each individual. Credit will be granted in CUP for up to 100% of the cost of the desired equipment. For goods only offered in CUC, the bank will issue a check in CUC and establish a repayment plan in CUP using the official exchange rate.

VP Díaz-Canel calls for less “self-censorship” in journalism while warning of “neoliberal subversion”

First Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel spoke this week to the Cuban journalists’ association, using the opportunity to warn against “neoliberal subversion,” while simultaneously urging an end to “self-censorship,” reports Cuba Standard. Citing provincial media as a positive example, Díaz- Canel encouraged journalists to “confront illegalities, corruption, [and] social indiscipline.” He also called for increased autonomy for state media, particularly in regard to personnel decisions.

Aida Calviac Mora, former chief of Granma‘s international section, has left Cuba to reside in Miami, EFE reports. The journalist appeared on a local station where she alleged that a “siege mentality” prevails in the island’s official journalism, despite calls by President Raúl Castro and Vice President Díaz-Canel to end self-censorship and secrecy. “Journalists have had to turn social media into spaces for catharsis, in order to try to say what the media where we work will not permit,” she stated.

Around the Region

El Salvador holds first-ever presidential debate

Five candidates competing for election to El Salvador’s highest office participated in the nation’s first-ever presidential candidate debate, report the Christian Science Monitor and AS/COA.

The debate, broadcast live on television, radio, and online from San Salvador, featured Vice President Salvador Sánchez Cerén, nominee of the FMLN, Norman Quijano, Mayor of San Salvador and nominee of ARENA, Antonio Saca, former president and nominee of UNIDAD, as well as Óscar Lemus of the Salvadoran Patriot Fraternity Party, and René Rodríguez Hurtado nominee of the Salvadoran Progressive Party.  It was moderated by Mexican journalist Armando Guzmán and featured four rounds of questions on the topics of health care, education, citizen security and the economy. Tim Muth and Carin Zissis both provide analysis of the debate.

Linda Garrett, senior policy analyst on El Salvador, is preparing a preview of the presidential election that will be available for newsblast subscribers and others in the coming days. If you would like to receive the Monthly El Salvador Update via email, contact: ElSalvadorUpdate@democracyinamericas.org

Recommended Reading

U.S. policy on Cuba needs an overhaul, Agustin E. Dominguez, Miami Herald

U.S. Army Major Agustin E. Dominguez argues that “the policy of isolation” toward Cuba is archaic and negatively affects U.S. international relations. He makes three specific suggestions: “First, the U.S. should deepen commercial ties with Cubans on the island…. Second, remove Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terror…. Lastly, the administration can develop an agenda for cooperation on energy, counternarcotics and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief on which cooperation is currently on a case-by-case basis.” The Center for Democracy in Americas expands on these and other ideas for collaboration with Cuba in its book, 9 Ways for US to Talk to Cuba and for Cuba to Talk to US.

A year into Cuba migration reform, islanders traveling in record numbers but no sign of exodus, Peter Orsi with Anne-Marie García, The Associated Press

The Associated Press spoke with some of the 185,000 Cubans who have traveled abroad since the immigration reforms that did away with travel restrictions for Cubans took effect a year ago. One woman who was finally able to visit her brother in Miami told the press from Havana, “Why didn’t I stay?… Well, simply because I have my 68-year-old mother here and my children … and I’m not going to leave them.” AP concludes: “A year into the new law, Cubans are traveling in record numbers. Some have not returned, but there’s no sign of the mass exodus that some feared.”

Pennsylvania Avenue’s Cold War, Yochi Dreazen, John Hudson, Foreign Policy Magazine

John Hudson and Yochi Dreazen look at Senator Bob Menendez’s break with the White House over issues such as negotiations with Iran. The authors make the case that such a high-stakes break may have implications for Cuba policy: “Menendez’s hard-line positions on the Cuban issue could leave him vulnerable to White House retaliation…. This time around, the administration could decide to punish Menendez for his support of the Iran sanctions bill by cutting those programs, promoting cultural exchanges with Cuba, further easing travel restrictions, or taking other concrete steps to build a stronger relationship with Havana.”

Tampa’s Cuba flights see room for growth, Ted Jackovics, The Tampa Tribune

With only three U.S. cities serving flights to Cuba (Miami, Tampa and Fort Lauderdale), Ted Jackovics reports on the present opportunity for Tampa International Airport to gain greater market share for its service.

2014 may bring more austerity, import cuts, Cuba Standard

This piece analyzes the upcoming troubles that Cuba’s economy may face, noting that the GDP has seen slow growth, and prices for nickel and sugar, two of Cuba’s largest exports are expected to continue to decline, while costs for importing food and subsidizing state companies will likely remain high. Meanwhile, Venezuela’s ongoing commitment to Cuba, its diversification of medical service exports, currency reform, the rise in tax revenue due to the increase in privately-owned businesses and the widespread international interest in the Mariel Special Development Zone are viewed as positive points for Cuba’s economic future.

Castro’s peso dilemma: a Cuban big bang, or gradualism? John Paul Rathbone, Financial Timespesos

John Paul Rathbone gives a brief overview of the discussion around Cuba’s plans to unify its currency, writing that the process “has generated a lively debate among economists,” and provides links to recent research papers on the subject.

Cuba: Paintballing, gay bars, cashpoints … the country looks forward to an age of prosperityHugh O’Shaughnessy, The Guardian

Hugh O’Shaughnessy details the “cautious optimism” that Cubans exhibit in the face of gradual economic reforms extended each day by Cuba’s government. With the opening of more privately-owned restaurants (paladares), gay bars, paintballing sites, cashpoints, and other services, O’Shaughnessy concludes that while changes are taking place in Cuba, it may not be at the pace desired by many individuals.

Start-up aims to put Cuba back on the coffee map, Rebecca Burn-Callander, The Telegraph

Philip Oppenheim, the UK’s former Treasury Minister, hopes his new business, The Cuba Mountain Coffee Company, will help revive Cuba’s “illustrious coffee-making past.” He reflects on the rapid changes happening in Cuba: “It was hard to get a foot in the door. …But this deal proves that Cuba is becoming an exciting emerging market for entrepreneurs.”

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