End It! What the NY Times and UN say about the US Embargo

In its lead editorial on Sunday, “Obama Should End the Embargo on Cuba,” the New York Times reignited the debate on Cuba by calling for the U.S. embargo to be lifted to serve the national interest and provide President Obama with a foreign policy legacy worthy of the name.

In the News Blast below, we report on what the editorial said and what happened after the editorial board said it.

But here, we discuss the October 28th vote in the UN General Assembly on condemning U.S. sanctions against Cuba, and how the embargo complicates our relations with Cuba, our region, and the broader world. We do so having just obtained the Secretary General’s report on the impact of the U.S. embargo on UN member states and institutions that was compiled this summer.

To paraphrase Lincoln, when the General Assembly takes up the Cuba resolution for the 23rd consecutive year, we know “the world will little note, nor long remember” what the UN does. This resolution has been approved every year since 1991. The outcome is hardly in doubt.

In 2013, the resolution carried in the General Assembly by a margin of 188 to 2 with three abstentions. This year, the sole suspense remaining is whether there is any country left – among the ranks of U.S. supporters (Israel) or our agnostics from the Pacific (the Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, and Palau) – who will defect from our side.

This drama offers little suspense for the UN press corps (see their forthcoming articles with the “yawn” emoticon). Yet, it leaves open questions about President Obama’s foreign policy and, as the Times argued, his legacy, that only he can answer.

In September, as President Obama challenged the world community in his General Assembly Address to confront Russia over Ukraine’s sovereignty, confront Ebola to stop the spread of the disease, and confront terrorism without inciting a clash of civilizations, what did he see?

However much he heard their applause –there was applause aplenty – the President was staring at heads of government and state utterly opposed to his policy toward Cuba.

In fact, this coalition of the unwilling extends from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe; from the Pope to Putin; from China to India, the world’s most populous countries to its most prosperous economies in the EU, Japan and South Korea; and all the way to our regional allies Brazil, Colombia, Chile, El Salvador, and Mexico.

Yes, at least 188 UN members oppose us; but, more than the numbers, it is the words that our allies and adversaries use about us that illustrate how much the embargo turns the world against us.

Listen to just some of the language submitted by member states to the Secretary General’s report on why they oppose the embargo; it tracks what President Obama said to the General Assembly last month to rally the world to his side so closely that it’s eerie.

In defending Ukraine against Russia, the President said: “We believe that right makes might –that bigger nations should not be able to bully smaller ones, and that people should be able to choose their own future.”

In the UN report, El Salvador criticized our Cuba policy saying, “Respect for a people’s freedom to determine its own history can never be disputed.”

While the President said, “Too often, we have failed to enforce international norms when it’s inconvenient to do so,” Egypt said the embargo is “morally unjustifiable and legally indefensible, and runs counter to the norms of international law.”

Where Obama said, “on issue after issue, we cannot rely on a rule book written for a different century,” Russia wrote, “the embargo imposed by the United States against Cuba is counterproductive and a remnant of the cold war.”

If he picked up a copy of the UN report, the President could read how the embargo impairs Cuba’s ability to treat children with heart disease and leukemia, stops Cuba from purchasing vaccines from the U.S. that protect its livestock against viruses and its people against food insecurity, and disrupts legal, two-way trade, even in the middle of financial transactions, as passwords disappear from back office banking operations and Cuba’s letters of credit are rejected by institutions which honor them from everyone else.

If he read the Secretary General’s report, the President would see Vietnam, which ended its state of war with America through dialogue and negotiation, calling on the U.S. and Cuba to settle our differences “through dialogue and negotiation,” with mutual respect “for each other’s independence and sovereignty.”

Then, he could sit in the Oval Office and think about whether he wants to leave the White House in 2017 with the embargo he inherited from John F. Kennedy virtually intact; having failed in its purpose to overthrow Cuba’s government, but having damaged everyday Cubans and isolated the U.S. from the island and the region.

He might also think about how his next challenge to the world will be received, after the world’s challenges to the Bush, Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations to drop the embargo have been disregarded over the course of 23 years.


New York Times Editorial Board calls on Obama to end the embargo

The New York Times published an editorial in Sunday’s paper calling on President Obama to end the economic embargo against Cuba started by President Kennedy in 1961 and to re-establish diplomatic relations with the island’s communist government. To underscore its significance, the Times also published the editorial in Spanish.

In offering specific criticisms of Cuba’s system, the editorial spoke with clarity and purpose: “The authoritarian government still harasses and detains dissidents. It has yet to explain the suspicious circumstances surrounding the death of the political activist Oswaldo Payá.” It also said that opening diplomatic relations with Cuba would “better position Washington to press the Cubans on democratic reforms, and could stem a new wave of migration to the United States driven by hopelessness.”

Then, it turned to Cuba’s recent economic reforms and improving human rights record to “show Cuba is positioning itself for a post-embargo era,” and it urged the Obama Administration to take steps toward normalizing diplomatic relations with the island:

“Engaging with Cuba and starting to unlock the potential of its citizens could end up being among the administration’s most consequential foreign-policy legacies. Normalizing relations with Cuba would improve Washington’s relationships with governments in Latin America, and resolve an irritant that has stymied initiatives in the hemisphere.”

The editorial board called on the Obama Administration to remove Cuba from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list, to lift restrictions on travel and remittances, and to join Cuba at the upcoming Summit of the Americas, rather than boycott over Cuba’s attendance, at the upcoming Summit of the Americas taking place in Panama next year. These steps, the editorial said, would benefit the U.S. in several ways, including better cooperation with Cuba on migration and increasing the chances of securing Alan Gross’ release. It also said these steps could work to persuade Cuba’s government to grant greater freedom and opportunity to its people, in what the editorial calls “one of the most educated societies in the hemisphere.”

The article drew several responses from both sides of this debate.

In his column in the state-run newspaper Granma, former President Fidel Castro reprinted nearly the entire editorial save a few sentences, but left the passages relating to human rights intact. Notably present in Castro’s article were lines criticizing what the Times called the “devastated” state of Cuba’s economy. In reaction to Mr. Castro’s reflections, Ernesto Londoño, author of the Times’ editorial, commented that Castro’s article marked “a rare instance of the government’s leaders allowing the state’s tightly controlled media to discuss sensitive topics, including political prisoners.”

Senator Bob Menendez (NJ), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, voiced his opposition to engaging Cuba’s government diplomatically in a Letter to the Editor. “Ill-conceived political or economic engagements rewarding tyranny do not represent American values, nor are they in the national interest,” he argued. “Give the Cuban regime an inch, and it will take a mile.”

Capitol Hill Cubans, the public face of the pro-sanctions lobbyists, replied to the New York Times by calling into question Mr. Londoño’s qualifications to write the editorial. They called him “a fine field reporter in Afghanistan and Iraq, but whose knowledge of Cuba policy is limited to regurgitating what his ‘sources’ selectively told him this week.” A few sentences later, in writing that “many observers argue that the reason why Castro refuses to tackle major reforms is because he’s hopeful that the U.S. will lift the embargo and bail-out his regime,” Capitol Hill Cubans engaged in some source – or observer –regurgitation of its own.

Kerry’s Praise of Cuba’s Ebola Response Trumps Response by State’s Spokesperson

Today, Secretary of State John Kerry praised Cuba for what it has done and plans to do in its mobilization against the Ebola outbreak in Africa, according to the Associated Press.

His brief but warm “shout-out” offered a marked contrast to comments by a State Department Spokesperson, whose reluctance to say anything about Cuba’s role comes through loudly and clearly in this transcript from her press corps briefing a mere two days before.

For over a month, Cuba’s active response to the outbreak has been receiving global praise; even at the Washington Post, which published a piece “In the medical response to Ebola, Cuba is punching far above its weight,” contrasting Cuba with an international community “accused of dragging its feet.”

Yet, the official position of the U.S. State Department has largely overlooked Cuba’s contribution to the crisis response. This exchange shows how difficult it was for reporters to squeeze out anything that resembled praise for Cuba from the Department’s Spokesperson, Jen Psaki, when they met earlier this week:

U.S. State Department Briefing, Wednesday, October 15, 2014

QUESTION: And on that note, the Cubans have actually stepped up with – do you have anything –

PSAKI: I’ve seen that.

QUESTION: – to say? Anything nice to say about Cuba – (laughter) – for its response to the Ebola?

PSAKI: There are some countries that are larger than Cuba that have not contributed as much as Cuba.

QUESTION: That’s the nicest thing you can say about Cuba? (Laughter.)

PSAKI: I would say we would welcome the support from a range of countries and obviously their contribution.

QUESTION: Why can’t –

QUESTION: Including –

QUESTION: I mean, seriously, all joking aside, why can’t you just say –

QUESTION: I wasn’t joking.

QUESTION: No, but I mean, it’s not a laughing matter. Why you –

PSAKI: I used it as an opportunity to highlight our point here, which is that Cuba is a smaller country; there are larger countries that have not given as much.

QUESTION: I understand. But can you say that you welcome Cuba’s support?

PSAKI: Sure. We welcome their support.

In contrast to her grudging praise, Secretary of State John Kerry did recognize Cuba in his remarks at a briefing for Members of the Diplomatic Corps on what the U.S. government is doing to deal with the crisis. In his remarks, Kerry said:

“Now already we are seeing nations large and small stepping up in impressive ways to make a contribution on the frontlines. Timor-Leste has donated $2 million. Cuba, a country of just 11 million people has sent 165 health professionals, and it plans to send nearly 300 more.”

Still, as Greg Grandin observes in his article, “Cuba’s Sending Doctors to Fight Ebola in West Africa: How will the U.S. react,” published by The Nation, the U.S. remains far away from the kind of engagement with Cuba’s medical internationalism that the U.S. ought to be practicing, given Cuban’s global role as a leader in crisis response.

Radio production contest masked US Government program

A 2009 contest that claimed to help young radio producers in Cuba was actually another “regime change” initiative funded by the U.S. government, according to investigative reporter Tracey Eaton in Along the Malecón.

Jeff Kline, who previously worked with the U.S. State Department and the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the federal agency responsible for Radio and TV Martí, visited Cuba and claimed to be promoting an international contest, called Barrio en Directo, for aspiring radio producers. After participants signed up, though, the contest ended without explanation, and no awards were given.

A Cuban woman interviewed by Eaton said that Kline gave her recording equipment and a book by Yoani Sánchez, one of Cuba’s most prominent dissidents. The woman believes that Kline was assessing her political leanings to determine if she had “anti-government tendencies.”

Eaton raises important questions:

“How much did the radio contest cost U.S. taxpayers? Did it help the pro-democracy cause in Cuba? Was the radio contest a cover for other activities? Was Kline more interested in testing communication gear than training political dissidents?”

According to Eaton’s report, Kline abruptly left Cuba after the 2009 arrest of Alan Gross because he, like Gross, was a private contractor for the U.S. government. The contest, which Kline told participants was an international program, was actually only carried out in Cuba. Around the same time as the “contest,” Kline had brought some $50,000 in communications technology into the country for testing.

Ángel Carromero speaks about Payá’s death in Miami

Last week, we reported that Ángel Carromero, the driver in the car crash that killed Cuban dissident Oswaldo Payá in 2012, was visiting Miami to tell his version of the event and of his subsequent imprisonment. El Nuevo Herald interviewed Carromero over the weekend. The video is availablehere.

Carromero, a citizen of Spain, was charged after Payá’s death with involuntary manslaughter for losing control of the car after driving at what prosecutors say was a recklessly high speed. Carromero maintains that his car was rammed by a vehicle belonging to the government and that he was forced by Cuban officials to confess to losing control of his car. He was allowed to return to Spain to serve his four-year sentence under an existing agreement between the two countries.

Carromero has since published a book about what he says was a planned assassination of Payá ordered by Cuba’s government. In Miami, he showed pictures to reporters that the Cuban prosecution used in his hearing. In some of the pictures, the car that Carromero was driving appears with a damaged front bumper, and in other pictures the bumper is intact. The car also appears to have been moved — in some of the pictures, the rear of the car is on gravel, while in others the back wheels are in tall grass.

“What happened on July 22 wasn’t an accident, it was an assault,” he said.

C.I.A applied lessons from Bay of Pigs in approach to Syria

According to files from an internal C.I.A study leaked to the New York Times, lessons from the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs operation were a part of a larger case made by senior officials of the Obama Administration against arming and training rebels in Syria.

“One of the things that Obama wanted to know was: Did this ever work?” said one official. Based on failed attempts at supporting insurgencies in Cuba, Nicaragua, and elsewhere, the report, he said, “was pretty dour in its conclusions.”


Civil society group promotes free debate

Cuban Lawyer Roberto Veiga and journalist Lenier Gonzalez have begun a project called “Cuba Posible” to promote independent media and open dialogue on the island, the AP reports. The project will set out plans for a new journal addressing Cuba’s most pressing problems and will conduct a series of public forums, seeking a middle ground between state media and the often belligerent dissident websites.

Veiga and Gonzalez, editors of Espacio Laical, the Catholic Church’s magazine, resigned their positions in June 2014, after turning the publication into a rare medium for a diverse set of political positions. They left amid criticism from some Cuban Catholics, labeled as “oppositionists” by Manuel Alberto Ramy in Progreso Weekly.

Cuba Posible is funded by Norway’s University of Oslo and is headquartered in a Cuban Christian group in Cardenas. The project’s first public forum was held recently, and it attracted an array of academics and intellectuals, many of whom were unafraid to voice criticism of Cuba’s failing economy.

“We’ve strived from the beginning to have something that appeared impossible, and today is more possible,” Veiga said. “People who think differently can share the same space and even work together.”

Independent construction of housing on the rise

Of the over 10,000 homes built in Cuba in the first six months of 2014, more than 6,300 were built by independent workers, according to new statistics reported by Granma. Even though total construction of houses has dropped since last year, the number of homes built independently of the state in the first half of 2014 increased by 678 over those built in the same period in 2013.

Roberto Vázquez, the director of investment for Cuba’s National Housing Institute (INV), says that decentralized allocation of building materials and increased subsidies for independent home building have helped in the growth of non-state homebuilding.

Last month, we reported that Cuba had modified its housing regulations to allow Cubans to buy unused, state-owned lots for a negotiated price. The changes also allow Cubans living on the top floor of apartment buildings to build on vacant rooftops. Cuba is facing a shortage of some 600,000 homes, and the changes in housing regulations were intended to encourage individuals to take on independent construction projects.

Cuba to update identification cards

Cubans will begin using new identification cards at the end of this month, reports EFE. The new cards will be more durable and will feature new security measures including signatures, holograms, and digital photographs. The cards being used today typically come in the form of a booklet or a piece of laminated paper. Cuba’s Ministry of the Interior said that future cards may even contain DNA and voice data, “which will result in an ID document that is more reliable and difficult to falsify.”


Journalist, dancers abandon posts to seek asylum

Jorge Luis Rodríguez, an international affairs journalist for Juventud Rebelde, an official newspaper of Cuba’s Communist Party, has applied for political asylum in London, Café Fuerte reports. Rodríguez was in London for a journalism workshop. “My hope is to continue practicing journalism and doing the work that in Cuba is not allowed by the government,” he said.

In addition, El Nuevo Herald has reported that 16 out of 35 members of a Cuban dance group that was touring in Mexico decided not to return to Cuba. Five of them have reached Miami after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. The dancers’ decision marks the largest defection of Cuban artists since 2004, when all 44 members of an independent dance troupe decided to stay in the U.S. after their tour in Las Vegas.

Last week, we reported that a Cuban diplomat posted in Germany flew to the U.S. after her husband disappeared in Havana.

Brazil’s presidential candidates debate Cuba policy

Brazil’s relationship with Cuba became a point of disagreement in a recent debate between Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff and her challenger Aecio Neves, reports Martí Noticias. Neves criticized Rousseff for her continuation of the Más Médicos program that sends Cuban doctors to work in rural and underserved communities in Brazil and for what he has called a lack of transparency in the financing of Cuba’s Mariel Port.

Más Médicos has drawn criticism from some Brazilians, especially doctors, who accuse President Rousseff of using low-wage Cubans to cover up larger and more systemic problems with the country’s health system. Rousseff has defended the Cuban doctors, pointing out that they serve in municipalities where most Brazilian doctors are unwilling to work, which makes health services available to Brazilian citizens that otherwise would go without treatment.

The financing of Cuba’s Mariel Port is also a contentious issue for some in Brazil. Neves criticized the “secret character” of the project, the details of which have been largely kept classified. Rousseff responded by defending the initiative, which she says will help increase Brazil’s exports.

Recommended Reading

How Business Can Change Cuba, Tim Padgett, Businessweek

Padgett uses the story of Cuban entrepreneur Yamina Vicente, who runs her own party and event planning business, to illustrate the broader changes taking place in Cuba’s society and economy. “If the U.S. really wants to help bring down the island’s repressive communist regime, it should chip away at it in Cuba, not just scream at it from Miami,” Padgett argues. “That is, Washington should help Raúl by helping novice entrepreneurs like Vicente.”

The Center for Democracy in the Americas hosted Vicente and other Cuban entrepreneurs in a conference titled “Cubans in the New Economy: Their Reflections and the U.S. Response.” Video from the conference can be seen here.

Cuban athletes face hurdles on road to sporting glory, Will Grant, BBC News

Cuba’s performance in the 2012 Olympics was lackluster at best — Cuba didn’t win a single gold medal. BBC’s Will Grant brings us back to the glory days of track and field in Cuba, when world champion Javier Sotomayor brought home two gold medals for the high jump. Grant then looks to the sport’s future, which may rest in the hands of 16-year-old star Lorenzo Martínez.

End America’s perverse embargo against Cuba, Jesse Jackson, Chicago Sun-Times

Citing Cuba’s outsized contribution to the fight against Ebola, Rev. Jesse Jackson calls on President Barack Obama to expand travel to the island and restore diplomatic relations. “The Cold War is long over, and the new generation of Cuban Americans wants relations opened up.”

El carbón acelera el tren de la economía cubana, Annett Rios, EFE

Second only to tobacco, the production of charcoal is the next largest source of income for Cuba’s Ministry of Agriculture. Demand for charcoal has risen internationally, which has put more money in the pockets of carboneros, but Cuba’s youth is more interested in urban jobs than in chopping and burning wood. In the words of one carbonero, “young people today are not interested in charcoal, which is for us, the viejos.”

Cuban violinmakers battle instrument shortage, Andrea Rodriguez, Associated Press

In a violin repair shop in Old Havana, craftsmen repair worn-down instruments and train apprentices in an effort to cultivate a fledgling Cuban violin industry. “It’s a profession that requires a lot of dedication,” remarks one repairman.

Recommended Viewing

Cuba’s wildlife attraction: countering the US travel ban for Americans, Michael Voss, CCTV

Eco-tourism is on the rise in Cuba, where a slowed economy has left large parts of the country’s ecosystems uninterrupted by construction or pollution. CCTV reports on a nature photography competition that drew photographers from around the globe.

Balancing act: The circus as a way of life for Cuban youth, Alexandre Meneghini, Reuters

Circus performers in Cuba have an opportunity to make a higher salary than most other Cubans because they regularly travel abroad. For that reason, many Cuban youths train in hopes of joining Cuba’s National Circus. The Washington Post presents a photo gallery by Alexandre Meneghini of Reuters that captures the experiences of some of these young people as they train in Havana.

Recommended Listening

New Cuban Hip-Hop Meets Old Cuban Soul, Jasmine Garsd, NPR

In this episode of Alt. Latino, Jasmine Garsd explores the relationship between the music of today’s Latino R&B artists and that of their older, jazz-playing counterparts.

Hello Havana? Re-Examining The Cuban Embargo, On Point, NPR

Tom Ashbrook, host of NPR’s “On Point,” invited Ernesto Londoño of the New York Times, Jorge Benitez of NATOSource, and Ricardo Herrero of #CubaNow to talk about ending the 50-year embargo.

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