On Ending Pipsqueak Diplomacy

We offer three loud, enthusiastic cheers to our friends Bill LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh.  Their new book, Back Channel to Cuba, immediately made news and refocused discussion on the decrepit state of U.S.-Cuba diplomacy.

“Clobber the pipsqueak” was Henry Kissinger’s call to war against Cuba.

Using documents obtained from President Gerald Ford’s presidential library, LeoGrande and Kornbluh detail the former Secretary of State’s rage at Cuba for disrupting the détente he had designed with Russia and the opening of China by sending its troops to help Angola preserve independence against attacks from South Africa, then our anti-communist ally.

As the New York Times reports, Kissinger set in motion the creation of contingency plans whose options included blocking Cuban ships from carrying troops and weapons to Africa to the bombing of Cuban bases and airfields.

A decision to strike the island was delayed until after the 1976 presidential election since, as one document said, “Escalation to general war could result.” Had President Ford beaten Jimmy Carter at the ballot box, we might well have found that out.

That even the idea of war was contemplated just fifteen years after the Cuban missile crisis is astonishing, as the authors said on MSNBC, since the agreement which ended it reflected a U.S. promise not to attack Cuba.

Although war fever spiked again during the Reagan years, diplomatic isolation, interrupted by episodes of engagement on matters like migration, has defined U.S. policy toward Cuba even under President Obama.

Yet, as Kornbluh and LeoGrande write in The Nation this week, “Obama can’t dodge the Cuba issue much longer. The Seventh Summit of the Americas, scheduled for Panama next spring, will force Cuba to the top of the president’s diplomatic agenda.”

Created in 1994, the Summit of the Americas has convened leaders of Western hemisphere nations six times without Cuba at the table.  Cuba is barred, chiefly at the behest of the United States, because it is not a democracy.

But, as Uruguay’s Foreign Minister Luis Almagro told the Miami Herald this week, Latin America has united behind the position “that Cuba should be part of the 2015 Summit.” By inviting Cuba, Panama “has welcomed this desire and I believe that the invitation sent to Cuba is good news for the inter-American family.”

Panama has put President Obama in a pickle.

As Nick Miroff, writing for the Washington Post, frames the choice:

“(If) Obama skips the conference, or sandbags it by sending Vice President Biden, it would render the already-weak OAS even more hobbled, and potentially deal a fatal blow to the possibility of future summits.

“If Obama does attend, it could lead to some awkward shoulder-rubbing with Raul Castro.”

This choice is not complicated for hardline supporters of our current policy like Senator Robert Menendez, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman.  In a rather apocalyptic letter to the president of Panama, Menendez wrote:

I am gravely concerned that inviting the Government of Cuba to the next Summit of the Americas sends the wrong message about the consolidation of democracy in the Americas, will dramatically weaken the democratic credentials of the premier meeting of heads of state in the hemisphere, and ultimately will undermine the validity of the Summits’ declarations.”

Not to be outdone, Mauricio Claver-Carone, Director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, predicts in the Miami Herald “a veritable unleashing of authoritarian ambitions in the hemisphere” if Cuba is seated at the summit.

Tiptoeing for time, the U.S. State Department approaches the problem as if it weren’t imminent. As Jen Psaki, State’s spokesperson said in a briefing: “Well, as I understand it, it was an announcement of (an) intention to invite.”

But, denial is not diplomatic.  As Fulton Armstrong and Eric Hershberg write this week, “Latin America sees Cuba as a full member of the hemisphere and has lost all patience with those in Washington who would deny that.”

The theme connecting Kissinger’s arrogance in 1976 to Senator Menendez’s easy dismissal of the prerogatives of Panama’s democratically-elected president is the inherent disregard that U.S. diplomacy has for Cuba’s existence as a sovereign nation.

That’s how we used to treat Vietnam.  Now, the Obama administration is selling its government lethal weapons, “to help Hanoi strengthen its maritime security as it contends with a more assertive China.”

There are much better reasons – such as rebuilding U.S. ties to the region – for the U.S. to drop its pipsqueak approach to Cuba and adopt a more robust diplomacy based on engagement.

A lesson drawn by Kornbluh and LeoGrande from six decades of back channel dialogue is that replacing hostility with reconciliation is not only possible, but capable of serving “the vital interests of both nations.”

Time, as they say, is running out, but President Obama can still rise to the occasion.


Cuba bans Ché and Chávez cologne, leaving LABIOFAM in bad odor

Cuba has banned two colognes named after Cuba’s revolutionary hero Ché Guevara and the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, Reuters reports. The fragrances were produced by LABIOFAM, a Cuban state-run pharmaceutical and cosmetics company, in partnership with Robertet, a French firm. The Executive Committee of Cuba’s Council of Ministers said in a statement that it will take disciplinary action against those who developed and promoted the colognes. The statement is made available in English by Progreso Weekly.

Mario Valdes, who led research and development for the cologne project, previously stated that the families of Chávez and Guevara had given permission to use their names to market the products. The Committee’s statement, however, said that the families had not approved the project.

In banning the fragrances, the Committee called the products “irresponsible” and assured readers that “initiatives of this nature will never be accepted.”

The “Ernesto” and “Hugo” fragrances were unveiled last week at a convention in Havana and cast as an “homage” to the two socialist heroes, but the announcement was met with criticism from many supporters of the Cuban Revolution and with tongue-in-cheek mockery – e.g., “Eau De Revolution!” – by the U.S. media. Both highlighted the contradictory nature of using the names of socialist revolutionaries to market cosmetic products.

Cuba to privatize more businesses in tourism industry

Two of Cuba’s highest tourism officials say the government has converted 24 restaurants into worker-owned cooperatives as a part of a larger effort to raise the quality of food and accommodations for travelers visiting the island, the AP reports.

State-owned tourism facilities are often criticized as being low-quality. As a result, José Manuel Bisbe, president of Havanatur, a state-run tour operator, said his company has been sending travelers to private bed-and-breakfasts rather than placing them in government hotels. “The state must free itself from activities that aren’t decisive for the economy and that experience is showing function better privately,” he said. Recently, state tour operators contracted 200 homeowners in the Viñales valley to use their homes as lodging for tourists.

Private restaurants have grown significantly since the first paladares were allowed in 1993 by then-President Fidel Castro. Today, there are nearly 1,300 private restaurants in Cuba, most of which cater to foreign visitors.

Cuba to increase money supply

Ernesto Medina, president of Cuba’s Central Bank, has announced plans to print more of Cuba’s national peso (CUP) in anticipation of the country’s eventual transition to a single-currency system, reports the AIN. The Central Bank has formed a working group to collaborate with other agencies of President Raúl Castro’s Administration in an effort to move the process forward, and Medina says the Bank might also introduce magnetic payment cards and peso bills of higher denomination.

According to the AP, Medina said “it was logical to assume that making Cuban pesos the sole national currency will require increasing the amount of money in circulation and that officials are studying the possibility of printing banknotes of higher value than those currently available.”

Cuba’s dual currency system has been in place since 1994 when the Cuban convertible peso (CUC), which was pegged to the dollar in order to attract hard currency after the collapse of the Soviet Union, was introduced on top of the already-in-use national peso (CUP). Most Cubans receive wages and purchase basic goods in CUP, but recently many goods have become available only in CUC, whose value against CUP is 24 to 1. Most of the goods that Cubans purchase in CUP are highly subsidized by the government, and many worry that currency unification will cause consumer prices to rise.

Cuba’s Ministry of Education (MINED) has recruited 230 university students to help address the country’s 12,000-teacher shortage, reports Café Fuerte. Of the 183,100 teachers needed at the beginning of the school year, only 170,466 were hired. Teacher shortages are a recurring challenge for Cuba, where retired professors were recently called back into service. MINED has proposed creating a two-year vocational program for students who are interested in becoming teachers but who do not want to pursue a traditional University career.


Cuban Court sentences Canadian CEO to 15-year prison term for financial crimes

A Cuban court has sentenced Canadian CEO Cy Tokmakjian to 15 years in prison for financial crimes including bribery, fraud, and tax evasion, Reuters reports. The Ontario-based transportation firm Tokmakjian Group had been doing business in Cuba for some 20 years before three of its Canadian executives and fourteen Cubans connected to the firm were arrested in 2011 in the midst of a corruption sweep initiated by President Raúl Castro.

The company mainly sold transportation, mining, and construction equipment and had done an estimated $80 million in business with Cuba each year. After Tokmakjian’s arrest, Cuba’s government seized $100 million worth of the company’s assets.

According to Cuban sentencing documents reviewed by Reuters, Tokmakjian bribed high-level Cuban officials with expensive meals, week-long beach vacations, rides on a private yacht, and flat-screen televisions. The documents also allege that he made electronic payments to many officials’ foreign credit cards in order to avoid being caught.

Lee Hacker, Tokmakjian Group’s finance vice president and company spokesperson, told Reuters that Cuban officials had asked Tokmakjian lawyers for $55 million in exchange for Tokmakjian’s release after his 2011 arrest. The deal fell through because the company lacked the funds and because Tokmakjian refused to admit wrongdoing.

Claudio Vetere and Marco Puche, the two other Tokmakjian executives charged in the investigation, were sentenced to 12 and 8 years respectively. Ernesto Gomez, former director of Cuba’s state nickel company, was given a 12-year sentence, and Nelson Labrada, former deputy Sugar Minister, was sentenced to 20 years. Both are charged with accepting thousands of dollars’ worth of bribes.

The CEO’s family said in a news conference that the charges against the 74-year old Tokmakjian are “completely false.” The company has called the case a “travesty of justice,” saying that Cuba’s government invented the charges in order to seize the company’s assets and didn’t allow Tokmakjian to bring in key witnesses for his defense.

Canadian parliamentarian Peter Kent said the convictions are “a very strong reminder that internal investors should beware” when doing business in Cuba. Cuba’s director of trade policy for Canada disagrees. “What we have is a clear message that in Cuba there is zero tolerance for corruption and illegality,” he says. “This is a battle every country in the world is fighting, including Canada itself.

Cuba’s foreign minister calls for reform at UN

Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez called for “profound reform” of the UN and a restructuring of its 15-member security council in an address to the General Assembly, the UN News Centre reports. “The Security Council should be rebuilt upon democracy, transparency, and fair representation of the countries of the South that are discriminated against among Permanent and Non-Permanent Members,” he said.

Rodríguez also denounced an increase in global military spending, specifically targeting the U.S. and NATO, both of which he says are “endangering the governability of the whole world.” Rodríguez’s full statements can be read in English here via Progreso Weekly.

Cuban health workers arrive in Sierra Leone

A Cuban contingent of 165 doctors and nurses has arrived in Sierra Leone, where it will help international efforts to contain the Ebola epidemic that has struck Western Africa, reports Reuters. Three Cuban doctors arrived last week to begin planning for the deployment of the hundreds of Cuban medical professionals that will be assigned to the region in coming months. An additional 296 doctors will be posted in Guinea and Liberia after completing training in Havana.

President Raúl Castro gave a personal farewell to the team before it departed, according to Granma. A majority of the health workers has served abroad previously, many of them in Africa.

See our link below to the video “Where to train the world’s doctors? Cuba.,” a talk by Gail Reed of Medical Education Cooperation with Cuba (MEDICC), already viewed more than 150,000 times on TED’s website.

Dutch guerrilla accused of terrorism by U.S. hosts FARC webcast in Havana

Dutch FARC fighter Tanja Nijmeijer, who goes by her nom de guerre “Alexandra Narino,” has helped launch and co-host an online news show to report on the peace talks between Colombia’s government and the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia), AFP reports. Nijmeijer is wanted in the U.S on terrorism charges for her alleged participation in the kidnapping of three Americans in Colombia in 2003.

Born in the Netherlands, Nijmeijer joined the FARC in 2002 after teaching English in an impoverished part of rural Colombia. She gained international attention in 2007 after the Colombian military found and published excerpts from her diary in which she revealed disillusionment and frustration with FARC leadership. Her romantic involvement with Mono Jojoy, a top FARC commander, reportedly saved her from punishment after the diary was published. She was later asked by FARC leadership to help represent their group in peace talks with Colombia’s government.

Peace negotiations have been underway in Havana since 2012 and have made significant progress in addressing the items in dispute as they negotiate a peace plan. The current round of negotiations is focusing on reparations for victims of the 50-year-old conflict.

The purpose of the FARC webcast that Nijmeijer co-hosts is to communicate a “better understanding” of the talks and to counter the “media siege” they say has been put in place by Colombia’s government. The first edition of the show can be seen here.


State Department says conditions for attending Summit of Americas should stand

In a press briefing, Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson responded to reporters’ questions about the invitation that Isabel de Saint Malo, Panama’s Foreign Minister, personally extended to President Raúl Castro to attend the 2015 Summit of the Americas. During the briefing, Secretary Jacobson said:

“I think we have made clear that we believe the summit process is committed to democratic governance and we think that the governments that are sitting at that table ought to be committed to the summit principles, which include democratic governance… Obviously, we have a position on Cuba which does not at this point see them as upholding those principles.”

Jacobson drew a distinction between Saint Malo’s invitation and “formal” invitations, which have not yet been issued:

“The decision about invitations is not ours to make, and obviously there’s been no invitations formally issued to the United States and other countries. And so there is no acceptance or rejection yet called for or made.”

At the highest levels of Panama’s government, this is a distinction without a difference. As Nick Miroff notes in the Washington Post, Panama’s president, Juan Carlos Varela, “said at the United Nations last week that he wants all of the hemisphere’s heads of state to attend.”  In addition, for most other OAS members, Cuba’s attendance at the Summit is close to certain, which puts the U.S. in a difficult diplomatic situation.

Treading carefully, Jacobson stopped short of saying the U.S. would not attend should Cuba be “formally” invited. “Panama is the host country for the summit, and as the host country they will make the decisions on invitations to that summit,” she said. “We’re really not going to answer hypotheticals in the future yet.”

The Summit of the Americas is a meeting of 35 countries of the Western Hemisphere that has taken place since 1994. The 2012 Summit in Colombia ended without a formal joint declaration because no consensus was reached regarding Cuba’s future participation. Following Cuba’s exclusion in 2012, many Latin American countries, including Argentina and Bolivia, threatened to boycott the 2015 Summit if Cuba is not invited.

Opposition to Cuba’s participation in the 2015 Summit is strong among embargo supporters like U.S. Senator Bob Menendez, who wrote in a letter to Panama’s President Juan Carlos Varela that he was “dismayed” over the Varela Administration’s decision to invite Cuba. His letter can be read here. You can read our response to Senator Menendez, “Senator Menendez Scolds Panama for Inviting Cuba over to its ‘house'” here.

Records show Kissinger planned to attack Cuba

Secret documents obtained by the National Security Archive, and made public Wednesday, reveal that Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State for Presidents Nixon and Ford, ordered top national security officials to draft secret contingency plans for military action against Cuba after then-President Fidel Castro sent troops into Angola in 1975.

The documents show that Kissinger considered launching airstrikes and planting mines in Cuban harbors. “I think sooner or later we have to crack the Cubans,” he said in a recorded conversation with President Ford. “I think we have to humiliate them. If they move into Namibia or Rhodesia, I would be in favor of clobbering them.”

The revelations were published this week in Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana, by American University Professor William LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh, Director of the National Security Archive’s Cuba Documentation Project.

LeoGrande and Kornbluh will be presenting their book at The Brookings Institute on October 6, 2014. Register for the event here.

U.S. opens registration period for Diversity Visa lottery

The U.S. has opened the registration period for its Diversity Visa lottery, also known as the Green Card lottery, which could issue at least 3,500 visas to Cuban applicants, El Nuevo Herald reports. The lottery, conducted annually under a provision of the Immigration Act of 1990, provides 55,000 permanent resident visas to citizens of countries with low rates of immigration to the United States.

Citizens of countries that have sent more than 50,000 immigrants to the U.S. in the past five years are not eligible to register for the lottery, but that figure does not take into account refugees, asylum seekers, or beneficiaries of the 1997 Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act (NACARA), which applies to Cuba.

Registration for the lottery must be completed online, a requirement that could pose difficulties for Cubans with limited Internet access. Accessibility troubles aside, the lottery offers a welcome alternative for those who do not qualify for a family reunification visa or who are wary of taking advantage of the Cuban Adjustment Act by making the often-dangerous journey to the U.S. by sea or through Central America.

Economists to create monthly index on Cuban economy

A team of economists from the Miami-based digital news service Cuba Standard have developed a new Cuba Standard Economic Trend Index that will measure five categories of Cuba’s economy – imports, exports, trade terms, foreign investment, and the economic relationship with Venezuela – based on publicly available data, reports The Miami Herald. The index will be published monthly.

Recommended Reading

Will Latin American leaders give Obama an ‘earful’ on Cuba at Americas summit?, Nick Miroff, The Washington Post

Miroff reflects on how President Obama might respond to Panama’s invitation of Cuba to the 2015 Summit of Americas.

Six Lessons for Obama on How to Improve Relations With Cuba, William M. LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh, The Nation

LeoGrande and Kornbluh offer suggestions to improve U.S.-Cuba relations based on the history of diplomacy and dialogue between the two countries.

Driving through Cuba’s provincial heart with hitchhikers, Lydia Bell, Cuba Absolutely

Lydia Bell recounts her travels in Camaguey, a 500-year-old city with “labyrinthine streets and narrow alleyways.”

Habla el hombre que sacó al pelotero Yasiel Puig de Cuba, Jorge Erbo, Miami Herald

Jorge Guerra, who was involved in the smuggling of baseball star Yasiel Puig out of Cuba, talks to the Miami Herald about his decision to seek protection from a Miami lawyer. Guerra says he was unwittingly drawn into the smuggling plot, and today he faces harassment and threats from other smugglers.

Cuban Migrants Tell of Dangerous Ordeal to the U.S., Carmen Sesin, NBC News

Jose Ramon Fuente Lastre, one of the nine Cubans who arrived in Florida after ten days afloat in the Florida Strait, talks about what motivated him to come to the U.S.

Ernesto Bazan’s Cuban Triology, David Gonzalez, The New York Times

Italian photographer Ernesto Bazan talks about the third and final book in his trilogy dedicated to redefining Cuba. His book, “Isla,” will feature black and white panoramic photos taken from around the island. “I could have stayed there all my life taking pictures,” he says.

Recommended Viewing

Gail Reed: Where to train the world’s doctors? Cuba., Gail Reed, TED Talks

Gail Reed, executive editor of MEDICC Review, tells a Ted Talk audience about the success of Havana’s Latin American School of Medicine, which offers scholarships to underprivileged students around the world.

Recommended Listening

Secret Talks And Back Channels Pervaded U.S. Relationship With Cuba, Morning Edition

William LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh discuss their new book, Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana, on NPR.

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