Wise Use of Executive Authority Could Navigate Obama off the 404 page

April 25, 2014

Thanks to ZunZuneo, President Obama has tweeted his Cuba policy into an Error 404 page.

Just this week, ZunZuneo rattled Roots of Hope, a non-profit that professed distance from government-funded “democracy promotion” programs, when the Associated Press exposed the role played by some of its leaders in the Cuban Twitter project.

It rankled Costa Rica after the AP reported that a USAID manager stationed in San Jose played a role in supervising the project, dragging a staunch U.S. ally which respects Cuba’s sovereignty into the regime change row.

And it continued to roil press relations with the State Department, where Jen Psaki, the spokesperson, was still telling reporters that USAID had not yet finished reviewing the tweets ZunZuneo sent to Cubans to determine their political content three weeks after the scandal broke.

The 2012 election should have freed the president’s hand.  But, after the President vanquished former Gov. Romney – who famously said in Florida, “If I’m fortunate enough to become the next president, it is my expectation that Fidel Castro will finally be taken off this planet” – his Cuba policy is staggering under the weight of a really dumb program that he inherited from his predecessor.

How can the president navigate back?  He should use his authority to revive his Cuba policy in ways that demonstrate his leadership and understanding of the post-Cold War world.

Take Cuba off the State Sponsors of Terror List.  President Reagan listed Cuba for political reasons, and politics is the only justification for why it remains falsely accused and heavily penalized.

Even though the Department explains the list by saying, “the Secretary of State must determine that the government of such country has repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism,” the report it issued last year read like a concise statement for Cuba’s exoneration.

It said, Cuba distanced itself from Basque terrorists.  It changed from offering safe haven to some members of the FARC to hosting peace talks between it and Colombia’s government.  The report even said, “There was no indication that the Cuban government provided weapons or paramilitary training to terrorist groups.”  The sole criticism it contained — that Cuba harbors fugitives wanted in the United States — is not a condition for including any country on the terror list.

Above politics, there are a number of compelling reasons – all in the U.S. national interest – for the President to remove Cuba from the terror list, and some urgency for him to take this step now.

Reconsider the sentences of the remaining members of the Cuban Five. This week, the New York Times endorsed a decision by the U.S. Department of Justice to reinvigorate the clemency power of the executive branch with this reminder:

“Throughout American history, presidents from Abraham Lincoln to Harry Truman to Gerald Ford have used the power of executive clemency to help bring an end to war, or to promote national healing in its aftermath.”

This brings us – and ought to bring the President – to the case of the Cuban Five, “now in their fifteenth year in prison for conducting espionage operations, mostly against exile groups with violent pasts,” as Peter Kornbluh explained in the Nation last year.

Although its negotiating position has shifted over the years, it has long been clear that the Cuban government will negotiate for the release of imprisoned U.S. contractor Alan Gross so long as its “humanitarian concerns” for these prisoners are also met.

Since his arrest in 2009, the U.S. government has fecklessly called for Mr. Gross’s unconditional release, despite his conviction in a Cuban court for activities our government knew were illegal before he was sent to Cuba under a USAID regime change program.

As recently as this month, Secretary of State John Kerry, in testimony before Congress, rejected a prisoner swap because it implies Cuba’s spies and Mr. Gross were engaged in equivalent activities (a debatable notion in itself).

Worse, it is the position of hardline Members of Congress that the U.S. should not negotiate with Cuba to obtain his release because Cuba is listed as a state-sponsor of terror (see above).

While his government offers pat explanations for what it won’t do to affect his release, Mr. Gross was plain-spoken in telling his attorney darkly, “His 65th birthday, which occurs on May 2, will be the last birthday that he celebrates in Havana.”

Deputy Attorney General James Cole, explaining the administration’s commutation policy, wrote, “It is important to remember that commutations are not pardons. They are not exonerations. They are not an expression of forgiveness.” He could have been writing the script for a Presidential determination to free the Cuban spies in exchange for Alan Gross.

The President will be hard to move on this exercise of his executive authority.  But, make no mistake; an action by the President to approve commutations for the remaining Cuban Five prisoners would not just enable Mr. Gross to celebrate his 66th birthday at home, but free his administration to pursue more effectively all of his Cuba policy goals.

The big enchilada is Helms-Burton. Our final point, though it might be hard to imagine, is that the President should be honing the argument for reclaiming the authority of his office to recognize Cuba, an authority that was seemingly taken away by passage of the Helms-Burton law.

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it will consider a case that bears directly on this point. It concerns a law enacted by Congress that requires the State Department to treat Jerusalem as the capital of Israel for the purposes of issuing passports.  At stake is the larger constitutional principle of whether the President has the exclusive right to recognize the sovereignty of another country.

The U.S. Court of Appeals sides with presidential power and against the Congress in a decision it issued last year.   Its decision can be read in its entirety here.  But, the conclusion by the Court is unmistakable:

“Having reviewed the Constitution’s text and structure, Supreme Court precedent and longstanding post-ratification history, we conclude that the President exclusively holds the power to determine whether to recognize a foreign sovereign.”

Should the Supreme Court affirm the appellate court ruling, its decision will loosen the grip of Congress on the core issue of Cuba policy – whether the U.S. will shift its focus from overthrowing the Castro government to letting Cubans decide their own future by themselves.

Letting the Cubans lead, rather than forcing them to tweet, would be a proud moment for the President, unless he prefers hearing the tweet of the hummingbird that brought him to 404.

Interested in traveling to Cuba? Travel with CDA!

Since 2001, the Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA) has been organizing delegations of travelers to visit Cuba to experience the island first-hand.

These trips, which we primarily offer to Members of Congress and various groups of policy experts, provide a truly unique experience, introducing travelers to our diverse range of contacts and friends, including artists, academics, entrepreneurs, musicians, journalists, and Cubans from all walks of life.

Right now, CDA is organizing a people-to-people delegation which will travel from June 1st to the 6th.  There are just a few spaces left, and we are hoping that readers of our news blast would like to fill them! If you are interested in seeing Cuba first-hand, please email Vivian Ramos at vivian@democracyinamericas.org ASAP.

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From the Bay of Pigs to the Bay of Tweets

April 18, 2014

Yesterday, The John F. Kennedy Library posted a “JFK in History” piece to mark the 53rd anniversary of what it called “a botched invasion at the Bay of Pigs on the south coast of Cuba.”

The invasion was a CIA covert operation with the goal of overthrowing the Castro government.  Kennedy was determined to conceal U.S. support for the operation and, as the entry explains, the “landing point at the Bay of Pigs was part of the deception.”  In the days before April 17th, the operation was exposed, American support for the invasion was revealed, and the small army composed largely of Cuban exiles was defeated.

It is no accident of history that ZunZuneo, the faux “Cuban Twitter” program revealed this month by the Associated Press, has been ridiculed in headlines as “The Bay of Tweets.”  Fifty-three years later, the United States is still engaged in activities to overthrow Cuba’s government, and still misusing the dark arts of government secrecy and deniability to obscure them, with consequences so familiar, it is as if a new generation of public officials has arrived at positions of power ignorant of their own country’s history.

In the 1970s, The Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, led by Senator Frank Church, was formed to review a series of efforts to overthrow foreign governments, spy on U.S. citizens, and conceal those activities from the Congress and the American people.  Time and again, the Committee invoked the Bay of Pigs as evidence of the damage that is inflicted on our national security and the U.S. system by excessive reliance on secrecy.

As the Committee wrote in its final report:

“The task of democratic government is to reconcile conflicting values…Reliance on covert action has been excessive because it offers a secret shortcut around the democratic process.  This shortcut has led to questionable foreign involvements and unacceptable acts…Finally, secrecy has been a tragic conceit.  Inevitably, the truth prevails, and policies pursued on the premise that they could be plausibly denied, in the end damage America’s reputation and the faith of her people in their government.”  Final Report, Page 16.

Following the report, Congress established a more formal system of oversight over intelligence activities and strengthened the legal requirements for the White House and executive branch agencies to report intelligence activities and covert actions.

Fast forward from the Bay of Pigs and the Church Committee to ZunZuneo, and you can see why some reporters are following the scandal so closely and why experts like Professor Bill LeoGrande have directly challenged repeated government denials that the program was covert:

“USAID’s ZunZuneo program meets the two key definitional attributes of a covert action: it was intended to influence Cuban politics, and the U.S. government’s role was intentionally hidden.”

In the earlier stages of the story, USAID flatly denied that ZunZuneo had any intent to influence Cuba’s politics.  As the AP reported, when Senator Patrick Leahy asked administrator Rajiv Shah whether its goal was to “influence political conditions abroad” or “to encourage popular opposition to the Cuban government,” Shah replied “No, that is not correct.”

Once AP published patently political text messages from ZunZuneo that contradicted Dr. Shah’s testimony, the State Department started ducking questions at its daily briefing from reporters asking for an inventory of the text messages.

Indeed, on April 9April 11April 14, and April 17, when reporters asked questions like “How goes the USAID review of these allegedly political text messages?,” the answer from the State Department has been Nothing new to report today,” “I would encourage you to check in with my colleagues at USAID,” and, “I don’t have any updates from here. I know they’re looking into it.”

Such evasions can’t really work when the facts point so strongly to covert actions that should have been reported to the Congress.  As Peter Kornbluh explained in an interview to Jeremy Bigwood:  “Zunzuneo had all the components of a classic covert action: shell companies, off-shore bank accounts, managerial cutouts, multinational locations, the goal of regime change, and, of course, the hidden hand of the United States government.”

Therefore, as Bill LeoGrande writes, “under the law (50 U.S. Code § 3093 (a)), [it] required a presidential finding and notification of the Congressional intelligence committees. Those obligations do not appear to have been met.”

And so we have our Bay of Tweets: another covert action, another effort to conceal the truth from the American people, another deceit in our endless mission to bring democracy to Cuba.

But, more than lies lie in the balance.  As Gary Hart, a member of the Church Committee, wrote a few years ago:

“A democracy that violates the rights and privacy of its citizens and conceals its activities from them edges dangerously near something other than a democracy.  The most radical of our founders, Thomas Jefferson, held that the best guarantor of the American republic was the good judgment and common sense of the American people, a people fully informed of the activities of its government on their behalf.”

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ZunZuneo: Is it Obama’s Elián moment?

April 11, 2014

We return to the Cuban Twitter story and begin with one remarkable, but obvious fact.  More than a week after the story broke people are still talking about it.  The obvious question: is why has it struck a chord?

It reminds us of the Elián González matter, over a decade ago.  How the six year old Cuban boy was plucked from the water after the raft that carried him from Cuba disintegrated and his mom died.  How his relatives in Miami clung to him for months denying Elián’s right to return to Cuba and live a peaceful life with his father.  How the Clinton administration seized him at gunpoint and finally returned him home.  How decisive majorities of the American public sided with Elián and supported the operation.  How the affair became a Waterloo for radical elements of the Cuban American community in Miami, causing many to reconsider their position of supporting any anti-Castro cause.

We may be wrong.  It’s too soon to tell.  But, we think the Cuban Twitter story has ushered in a similar moment for the broader community of Americans.  If that is the case, it should send a fairly clear signal to the Obama administration about its contradictory treatment of U.S.-Cuba relations.  This is a moment not simply to reconsider, but to choose a very different course.

USAID says it inherited the program from the Bush administration, a craven and deficient explanation, reminiscent of how the Kennedy administration’s hands came to be stained by the Bay of Pigs.  It made many other mistakes – more about those later – but a big one was thinking such a horrible idea could be kept a secret in the age of Edward Snowden, or that the traditional excuses for invading Cuba’s sovereignty (we did it to make Cuba democratic) would satisfy anyone at this moment in time.

We’re not saying every American is following the story, or knows the minute details of U.S.-Cuba relations in order to have a lasting reaction to what is being revealed.  But we – and we mean all of us – are experiencing a heightened sense of vulnerability with regard to our on-line lives.  Its familiarity is what makes the Cuban Twitter story so vivid and real to us all.

Just ask tens of millions of consumers who ran their credit cards through cash registers at Target thinking their information was safe.  Or think about a poll released last July showing that 70% of Americans believe that the surveillance programs exposed by Mr. Snowden are used for “other purposes” than investigating terrorism. Or that fifty-five percent of Internet users have tried to take steps to avoid observation by specific people, organizations, or the (U.S.) government.

Since much of what we’ve come to fear about the government’s surveillance programs and potential violations of our privacy has a familiar counterpart in the ZunZuneo scandal, this is what makes the Cuban Twitter episode so powerful.

The essential facts, as Phil Peters described them, are easy to understand.

“USAID created ZunZuneo, a Twitter-like information service for Cubans that operated by text message.  The U.S. government’s involvement was hidden ‘to ensure the success of the Mission.”  Cuban subscribers registered for the service, USAID gathered their personal data, and through interactions with subscribers it ranked their political tendencies….The idea was to build the subscriber base by offering interesting news content, gradually to introduce political content, and eventually to try to mobilize subscribers to political activism so as to ‘renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society’.”

The AP quotes a primary actor in the bungled affair, James Eberhard, who noted the “‘inherent contradiction’ of giving Cubans a platform for communications uninfluenced by their government that was in fact financed by the U.S. government and influenced by its agenda.”

After that, it gets worse.  Not only did the U.S. government go to great lengths to conceal its role in creating ZunZuneo from Cuban users of the service, putting at risk, “young, unsuspecting Cuban cellphone users who had no idea that this was a U.S. government-funded activity,” as Senator Pat Leahy said.  But, our government went to great lengths to conceal it from Members of Congress and the American people, and it continues to do so even after the secrets have come spilling out.  There are many.

The State Department said, “no political content was every supplied by anyone working on this project or running it.” Five days later the AP had the satirist who composed the text messages on record saying “Everything I do is politics,” and ran a series of them to prove the State Department wrong.

USAID tried to debunk a part of the story that said a Spanish company was formed to support the network, but the AP found expense reports for the costs of incorporating the firm, proving USAID wrong.

The White House said it wasn’t a covert operation; but it was. There was no other reason to hide the money that paid for it.  No other reason to conceal it from Congress.  No reason for the USAID administrator to come to a Congressional hearing and deny knowing who thought the program up.

Beyond the deceit, what makes this episode so galling is the incompetence of the contractor to whom our government outsourced this seamy side of our foreign policy.  As the AP reported, by basing the system on SMS messages received in Cuba, they ended up paying of tens of thousands of dollars in text messaging fees to “Cuba’s communist telecommunications monopoly routed through a secret bank account and front companies.”  They simultaneously poured money into the Cuban government’s pocket and exposed the operation to detection.

All of this is more than bad luck; many will pay the costs.  Just before the scandal broke, Yoani Sánchez, the Cuban blogger, debuted in Miami her latest effort, a digital news project, so sensitive that she would not disclose its name.  She and every other on-line activist in Cuba and around the world will be bearing the burden of ZunZuneo every after.

Another cost is the constitutional principle of oversight and accountability.  When Senator Jeff Flake asked for all the text messages sent by the Cuban twitter, the USAID administrator said he doesn’t have most of them but promised to turn them over if he got any from the contractor.  By outsourcing critical foreign policy decisions to corporations who appear to be unaccountable, Congress is unable to control what is done in our name.

Another cost was exacted from Cuban citizens themselves.  As one said to the AP, when the service disappeared “In the end we never learned what happened.  We never learned where it came from.”  They were abandoned by the program when it lost its funding.  You can just imagine how Alan Gross feels.

The greatest deceit of all is that any of this had anything to do with breaking Cuba’s so-called information blockade.  You can expose Cubans to American information and values without exposing them to the risk of a U.S.-designed covert operation; simply by allowing all Americans to travel to Cuba without restrictions.  But that option is not currently on the table.

It should be.  The administration has to decide whether it can smother this story through deception, or whether it can seize the moment, start telling the truth, and change course on policy.  The Cuban Twitter saga is President Obama’s Elián moment.  Let’s hope he makes something of it.  It’s time to take regime change off the table.

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Snapchat, ZunZuneo, and Cuba as an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

April 4, 2014

Living as we do in the “Snapchat” – or even ZunZuneo – era, where the present can disappear or be buried by new material in 1-10 seconds, history may not stand a chance.  This is not a new phenomenon.  In 1999, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni did a survey which revealed that seniors at 55 leading colleges and universities were more familiar with Snoop Dogg (98%) than with James Madison’s role in writing the U.S. Constitution (23%).  Even if Snoop’s numbers have drooped in the intervening fifteen years, it’s hard to imagine that Madison’s have seen much of a revival.  If the present disappears in an instant, what chance does history have?

Forgive us, then, our faith.

A couple months back, we at the Center for Democracy in the Americas were contacted by Louis A. Pérez, Jr., asking if we might be interested in publishing his article “Cuba as an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.”  Dr. Pérez is the J. Carlyle Sitterson Professor of History and Director of the Institute for the Studies of the Americas at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and editor of Cuban Journal. His research and award-winning publications examine the history and identity of the nineteenth and twentieth century Caribbean, with a special focus on Cuba.

We readily agreed.

In “Cuba as an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder,” Dr. Pérez offers a powerful case that this country’s fixation with determining Cuba’s destiny did not originate with the Castro Revolution of 1959.  Instead, it began much earlier, dating back to America’s preoccupation with its own manifest destiny, starting with the acquisitions of Louisiana and Florida, three centuries ago.

In his article, you will hear the ringing voices of U.S. statesmen and figures nearly lost to history.  These include: John Adams, the second president of the United States, who called Cuba “An object of transcendent importance to the political and commercial interests of our Union.”  His son, John Quincy Adams who, as Secretary of State, said Cuba was a “natural appendage” of the United States.  John Clayton, Secretary of State under President Zachary Taylor, who promised the “whole power of the United States would be employed to prevent . . . Cuba from passing into other hands.” Senator Robert Toombs, the secessionist Senator, who declared “I know of no portion of the earth that is now so important to the United States of America as the Island of Cuba is.” And President James Buchanan, who said breathlessly, “We must have Cuba. We can’t do without Cuba.”

To them and others, making Cuba an American possession was a strategic imperative and a psychological obsession.

With this chorus from the 19th Century, the voices we hear of statesmen and political figures in our own era now come across with greater fidelity.  The Cold Warriors of the past like CIA Director John McCone -“In my opinion, Cuba was the key to all of Latin America; if Cuba succeeds, we can expect most of Latin America to fall” – as well as his heirs of today, who refer to efforts by President Obama to relax travel restrictions as “appeasement.”

This leaves us, as Dr. Pérez writes, with a Cuba policy that is an “anomaly of singular distinction: more than 50 years of political isolation and economic sanctions, longer than the U.S. refusal to recognize the Soviet Union, longer than the hiatus of normal relations with China, longer than it took to reconcile with post-war Vietnam. Cuba has been under U. S. sanctions for almost half its national existence as an independent republic.”

History does have a powerful claim on this policy; a claim that long precedes the emergence of Fidel Castro and the success of the Cuban Revolution. To make this assertion is not to disenfranchise the claims of Cuban Americans or their very real grievances; no, it is to recognize that what happens between the United States and Cuba affects and implicates all of us.

Understanding the history may not actually make changing the policy any easier.  After all, the resilience of this failed, fifty year-old policy springs from what the hardliners have built around it – the network of political action committees, fraternal organizations, relationships, elections, appointments, websites and more -to keep it in place for them to control no matter what the rest of us may think or want for the future.

Yet, we have this abiding faith that it will be easier for policy makers to find the way forward if they better appreciate how we arrived at this place where we’ve been stuck.

We “Snapchat” Americans may not remember or know what to do with this history upon being presented with it.  But, there’s one thing we can promise you: the Cubans have never forgotten.

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