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.
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Costa Rica’s government has asked the Obama Administration to explain why the U.S. pursued work on the ZunZuneo program in that country despite warnings in 2009 that it would cause political problems, reports the AP.
In 2009, Costa Rica’s Foreign Ministry told the U.S. embassy that the project could create “political difficulties” for Costa Rica. An internal Foreign Ministry memorandum written by Javier Sancho Bonilla, protocol and state ceremonial director, said that it “could create a situation politically inconvenient since it can be interpreted that it would violate the principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of other countries.”
On April 4th, the day after the Associated Press broke the ZunZuneo story, Costa Rica’s Foreign Ministry requested an explanation, reports La Nación. Foreign Minister Enrique Castillo wrote: “It does not seem correct to the Ministry that Embassies should engage in actions from Costa Rica that affect another country. We cannot approve this, not in any case. This is unacceptable.” Communications Minister Carlos Roverssi said that Costa Rica “officially asked the government of the United States to clarify the facts exactly as they have been denounced,” adding that “The government of the Republic was not aware of this.”
According to La Nación, the U.S. Embassy in Costa Rica requested permission from Costa Rica’s government to operate a “Latin American Exchange Program” (PILA) in 2009, “to increase communication and exchanges in Cuba and throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, including Costa Rica.” According to the report, the requests failed to mention the ZunZuneo project. Costa Rica denied permission to the U.S., rejecting accreditation for two Creative Associates contractors. Nonetheless, according to the report, the program operated in Costa Rica for over a year. The U.S. Embassy denies this claim, saying it does not have any record of a rejection from Costa Rica’s government.
U.S. State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki, acknowledged receipt of a diplomatic inquiry from Costa Rica after the AP broke the story, and said that “In the following days, embassy staffers have reached out to their Ministry of Foreign Affairs counterparts on multiple occasions about the issue and those conversations have been ongoing.” An April 7 blog post from USAID spokesman Matt Herrick says that the AP investigation “suggests there was an inappropriate base of operations established in Costa Rica outside of normal U.S. government procedures,” but said that the “government of Costa Rica was informed of the program on more than one occasion.”
Scott Gilbert, the lawyer for Alan Gross, a former USAID subcontractor who has been jailed in Cuba for over four years, said Gross plans to return to the U.S. before May 2015, reports Miami Herald. Gilbert told MSNBC:
“[Gross] told me yesterday emphatically that May 2, which marks his 65th birthday, will be the last birthday that he marks in Cuba, one way or the other…. Alan means that he does not intend to endure another year of this solitary confinement and that he will return to the United States before his 66th birthday, dead or alive.”
Jen Psaki, State Department spokeswoman, told reporters that U.S. officials discuss the Gross case indirectly with interlocutors who have ties to Cuba, neither confirming nor denying that direct talks with Cuba on Gross have continued. Gilbert met with Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez Wednesday and confirmed that no ongoing discussions between the U.S. and Cuba on Gross are taking place.
Rodríguez stated, Cuba “is interested in meeting with officials from the United States at the highest levels of both governments to discuss the release of Alan Gross with no preconditions.” Gilbert told MSNBC:
“Our message, really, is to … President Obama. Please engage on this issue. …Sit down with the Cuban government. Try to reach a resolution. Do what you can do to bring Alan Gross back to his country. Make serving your government in a foreign country mean something.”
Capital News Service reports that representatives from the Cuban Interests Section said in remarks at American University that until the U.S. fully acknowledges and addresses Gross’ intentions in Cuba, relations between the countries will not improve. First Secretary Warnel Lores Mora of the Cuban Interests Section said:
“We want Internet. The United States denies us the possibility to connect from Florida, 90 miles away … they prefer to waste the money for secret programs than provide us with the capability…There is a great hypocrisy in the policy.”
A program approved and financed by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to develop technology for a Wi-Fi network in Cuba is now under review, reports Miami Herald. The grant for this project was assigned in 2012 to the Open Technology Institute (OTI — not to be confused USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives).
OTI, the grantee, is a part of the New America Foundation, which also includes the U.S.-Cuba Policy Initiative. The director of this New America Foundation project, Anya Landau-French, opposed OTI’s decision to apply for the USAID grant.
This technology nicknamed “Commotion” was intended to advance USAID’s “democracy promotion” efforts in Cuba by creating a mesh network, a local network made up of antennas and routers that communicate with each other. The project gained attention after it was mentioned in a New York Times feature about similar endeavors in Tunisia. The news follows recent revelations about other USAID projects on the island, namely the ZunZuneo “fake Twitter,” an SMS service that obtained Cubans’ phone numbers without their permission, and without informing them that the service was a project of the U.S. government. That program intended to reel in users with non-political content, and follow by sending political messages designed to stir unrest on the island.
USAID spokesperson Matt Herrick stated that USAID is “looking into [Commotion], to see if it’s consistent with the [OTI] proposal and achieves expected outcomes.” He also stated that Commotion “is not operational in Cuba” and that no one has traveled to Cuba for the project. The grant runs through September 30, 2015. According to the Times, USAID has pledged $4.3 million to create mesh networks in Cuba.
The article reports that USAID launched a similar network in Tunisia with the approval of municipal authorities. The network was started by some of the same individuals who helped overthrow Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011. According to the report, “It is clear that the United States sees Sayada [Tunisia town] as a test of the concept before it is deployed in more contested zones.”
In related news, the independent journalist Tracey Eaton reports that the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees Radio and TV Martí, is seeking firms capable of “developing and producing specialized Spanish language multimedia programming specifically designed for broadcast to Cuba.” The BBG is most interested in firms that have previously produced programming in Cuba focused on entrepreneurship and profiles of artistic individuals or groups living in Cuba.
Leaders of the Cuban-American youth organization Roots of Hope provided support for the U.S. government’s secret “Cuban Twitter” ZunZuneo program, serving as paid consultants and connecting contractors with potential investors in order to shift the program into private hands, the Associated Press reports. Roots of Hope itself was initially approached by federal contractors to invest, but the idea was dropped. Two members of its board of directors – Chris Gueits and Raul Moas – worked as consultants for the government program despite Roots of Hope’s explicit refusal to accept U.S. government funding.
Past projects by Roots of Hope include work to give Cubans cell phones and USB flash drives, as well as collaborations with Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez.
CWT B.V., a prominent Dutch travel company, will pay a $5.9 million fine to the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) for violations of the U.S. embargo against Cuba, reports The Wall Street Journal. According to the Miami Herald, the company violated sanctions by providing travel services to 44,430 people to and from Cuba between 2006 and 2012, after becoming majority-owned by U.S. entities.
The fine is one of the largest assigned to a travel company by the U.S. government for embargo violations and is part of a pattern of increasingly stringent enforcement. In a recent analysis of Cuba’s new foreign investment law, David Jessop speculates about the U.S. government’s motives:
“Although many pressures still surround the process of US economic re-engagement it is clear that US business is acutely aware of the potential opportunity now opening up. This seems to have spawned an increasingly aggressive approach on the part of the US Treasury which by placing pressure on the international banking system and individuals in Europe and elsewhere to reserve the future Cuban market for US business alone.”
Cuba Travel Services has announced that it will offer direct flights from Miami to Holguín, Cuba beginning in June. Cuba Travel Services already provides direct flights from Miami to five Cuban cities – Havana, Cienfuegos, Camagüey, Santa Clara and Santiago de Cuba. The new route will launch on June 5th.
Carlos Alzugaray, former head of Cuba’s mission to the European Union, says that ties between Cubans on the island and in the U.S. “have never been so diverse or so rich,” reports AFP. As we reported last week, the U.S. granted 19,500 visas to Cubans for family, professional, and business visits during the first half of the current fiscal year. More than 90% of visas granted during this period were five-year, multiple-entry visas, which the U.S. began offering to Cubans in August 2013.
In the first trimester of 2014, approximately 173,550 U.S. travelers visited Cuba, according to a report by the U.S.-based Havana Consulting Group. This figure includes Cuban Americans as well as other travelers taking part in legal categories of travel to the island, such as people-to-people trips.
CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS
The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) Fund for International Development (OFID) will grant nearly $50 million in loans for water rehabilitation projects in Cuba over the next two years, reports Cuba Standard. The funding will support Cuba’s ongoing water infrastructure rehabilitation program. OFID has provided Cuba with low-interest loans to support various sectors since 2002.
Western diplomats say Cuba may reach a debt agreement with the Paris Club, an informal grouping of nineteen creditor governments that includes Russia, Germany, the UK, Switzerland, Japan, and the U.S., reports Reuters. According to the diplomats, the Paris Club sent a delegation to Havana at the end of 2013 to present proposals to Cuban officials, who were receptive. The officials discussed a possible combination of debt forgiveness, a 10-year payment plan, and debt swaps.
According to the Paris Club, Cuba’s debt in 2012 was $35.5 billion. Establishing the exact figure will be part of the negotiations, and will take into account Russia’s deal with Cuba in 2013 which wrote off 90% of Cuba’s $32 billion debt to the Soviet Union. The Club reportedly maintains a working group on Cuba that excludes the U.S. Reaching a deal would reduce Cuba’s debt and facilitate the acquisition of new international loans, according to Reuters.
Cuba’s national debt figures are not public. Moody’s, the financial services company based in New York, dropped Cuba’s credit rating on Wednesday from Caa1 to Caa2, citing risks associated with the instability in the island’s oil supply from Venezuela and the potential for “an abrupt and disorderly political transition,” reports AFP.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba defaulted on its debt while reeling from the economic effects of losing its biggest trading partner as it was still subject to the U.S. embargo. Talks with the Paris Club were opened in 1999 and were placed indefinitely on hold in 2001.
The Paris Club proposed the resumption of talks with Cuba in 2011, following Cuba’s stated intentions to address its international debt. The Guidelines passed at the 2011 Communist Party Conference include a push to “enhance Cuba’s credibility in its international economic relations by strictly observing all the commitments that have been entered into,” and to introduce “flexible restructuring strategies for debt payment.”
On Sunday, President Raúl Castro met with China’s Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, report Granma and Progreso Weekly. According to their statement, the officials “analyzed a broad bilateral agenda, the preparations for the official visit of President Xi Jinping, and aspects of the international situation that are of mutual interest.” Wang is preparing for China’s President Xi Jinping’s Latin America tour that will begin in July. Wang also met with former President Fidel Castro and Cuba’s Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodríguez.
Russian senators of the Federation Council of the Federal Assembly plan to meet with top Cuban officials this week, reports Progreso Weekly. The delegation will be led by the chairman of the Assembly’s Committee on Rules and Organization, Vadim Albertovich Tulpanov. In addition to meeting with officials, they plan to tour joint Russian-Cuban engineering enterprises and discuss the development of tourism infrastructure and tourism exchange.
Cuba’s Commission on Culture and Media published a report Friday pressing the government to push forward with reforms of its television and film industry, reports AFP. The report concludes that these industries suffer from:
“a shortage of funding, poor leadership, disorganization and a lack of discipline. … Cuba’s television system is urged to make structural and productive changes, in keeping with the current reality in the rest of the country.”
The report proposes reforms that include the creation of outlets not under state control. It was released following a recent meeting of Cuba’s Union of Writers and Artists, or UNEAC.
Cuban baseball star Connie Marrero passed away in Havana on Wednesday at age 102, reports The New York Times. He was the oldest living former Major League Baseball player. Marrero first joined the U.S. Major Leagues in 1950 at age 38, and became a pitching sensation. He eventually returned to Cuba. He told NPR:
“I’m Cuban, and I came back to my homeland, to the place I was born. I wish our countries could be united again, just like the way they used to be.”
Dan Whittle, director of the Environmental Defense Fund’s Cuba program, recounts the story of a recent interview with Marrero, reflecting that the former all-star’s story serves as a reminder:
“that U.S.–Cuba relations were once as close as the sliver of saltwater that separates the two nations, and should be so again. This is important for both countries, which, despite five decades of political stalemate, share much more than a love of baseball.”
From the Bay of Pigs to the ‘Bay of Tweets’, Sarah Stephens, Huffington Post
In a Huffington Post column, CDA’s director, Sarah Stephens, links revelations of covert actions like the Bay of Pigs to USAID’s Twitter-like program, ZunZuneo. She writes, “Fifty-three years later, the United States is still trying to overthrow Cuba’s government, and still misusing the dark arts of secrecy and deniability to obscure the facts; with consequences so familiar, it is as if a new generation of public officials has risen to power ignorant of their country’s history.”
The United States and Cuba Should Play Ball, Reps. David Bonior and Tom Downey, Roll Call
Representatives David Bonior (MI-12) and Tom Downey (NY-2) reflect on their recent visit to Cuba, arguing that it is time for great engagement between the two nations. Bonior and Downey encourage president Obama to take steps to “ease travel and open opportunities for the private sector” because sanctions against Cuba have only “hamper[ed] the success of the very type of market reforms that the embargo was supposed to bring about.”
Coming soon, a spring thaw with Cuba?, Rafael Hernández, Los Angeles Times
Rafael Hernández, editor of the Cuban periodical Temas, makes the case for greater engagement by the U.S. with Cuba, on issues ranging from the island’s new role in the regional economy, to the historic concerns of the U.S. with human rights. He says, “Dialogue and discreet diplomacy — what the Canadians call ‘constructive engagement’ — have functioned better than external pressure toward Cuba. The Vatican and the European Union, which could hardly be suspected of sympathizing with the Cuban government, can bear witness to that approach.”
Cuba’s Emerging Entrepreneurs: Update One Year On, Richard Feinberg, Brookings Institution
Richard Feinberg, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, returned to Cuba to check in with the entrepreneurs he interviewed for his 2013 work “Soft Landing in Cuba? Emerging Entrepreneurs and Middle Classes.”
Makers of political decisions can save people from amputation, Lisandra Díaz Padrón, Progreso Weekly
Lisandra Díaz Padrón interviews Jorge Berlanga, “the father of Heberprot-P”, the breakthrough treatment for foot ulcers associated with diabetes. U.S. sanctions against Cuba prevent the sale of Heberprot-P in the U.S.
Cuban Artist Tomás Sánchez Shows Works in Cuba after 27 Years, Irina Icharry, The Havana Times
Irina Icharry profiles Tomás Sánchez, a Cuban artist who recently presented his first exposition on the island in 27 years.