Thanksgiving Edition: Shout-outs and holiday helpings of news

November 26, 2014

As we prepare for the holiday and gird for stormy weather in the U.S., we offer you light reading and simple gratitude in today’s Thanksgiving Edition.

In the final days of 2014, we have reached a moment to savor: the table has been set for President Obama to make decisive changes in U.S.-Cuba relations.

A remarkable group of women and men – here and in Cuba – began the good fight long before we hit send on the first edition of the Cuba Central News Blast.

This year, truly exceptional table setters drove progress in ways that built on their decades-long efforts. In the spirit of this holiday, we remember events and the people who took actions that made us thankful in 2014:

  • Big shifts in support for normalizing relations – nationally, and especially in Florida and its Cuban American precincts – documented precisely and honestly in surveys by Florida International University, the Atlantic Council, and the Miami Herald.
  • Bold leaders – retired U.S. officials, regional experts, and historic opponents of Cuba’s government – whose letter to President Obama demonstrates that real reforms are a mainstream expression of U.S. foreign policy interests.
  • Comics and pundits who made us laugh and think as they talked about ending the embargo.
  • Families who allowed reconciliation to replace revenge in their hearts; a once lonely process is now engaging thousands of families today.
  • Investigative journalists, whistleblowers, and others who did the bold and persistent work to bring the scandalous activities of USAID’s Cuba program to light.
  • The men and women who are working quietly and diligently so Gerardo Hernández,Antonio Guerrero, Ramón Labañino, and Alan Gross can return home.
  • The New York Times Editorial Board for making the case, again and again, to the public and our national leadership that ending the embargo is in the national interests of the U.S.
  • Scholars and historians whose new books built a stronger foundation for change.
  • Smart, courageous allies who make the reform case in really creative ways.
  • Readers that support the Blast whose donations let us share what we learn and think with all of you.

In the days and months to come, we will keep working and continue urging President Obama to transform U.S.-Cuba relations. The times demand it and he has the power to do it.

We know you believe this, just as we do. We invite you to join us by raising your voices and supporting our work.

You won’t hear from us until the first Friday in December.  Between now and then, Alan Gross will mark the fifth anniversary of his arrest.  There are empty seats at his family’s Thanksgiving table and in the homes of the Cuban Three who have been locked away in the United States considerably longer.  A real reform must encompass a solution for them all.

The table is set and it’s time for the President to act.

Happy holidays!

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Will Immigration Blowback Affect the Chances for Cuba Reforms?

November 21, 2014

We couldn’t watch the President’s immigration reform speech last night without wondering what we could learn from his action – and the overreaction to it. What will happen if Mr. Obama also uses his executive power to make decisive changes in Cuba policy?

Here’s our take.

Get ready for a flood of bogus questions about presidential power. Immigration opponents hit hard at whether President Obama even had the authority to implement the reform program he announced last night. But these arguments were met with slam dunk responses firmly grounded in Supreme Court findings, and the fact that every president since Eisenhower — including Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush —  has used his presidential power to defer the deportations of immigrants a total of 39 times in the intervening 60 years.

The President retains broad authority to change policy toward Cuba. The World War I-era Trading with the Enemy Act, the law on which the Cuba embargo is based, is applied by a discretionary act of the President on an annual basis.  While Congress codified elements of our sanctions policy under Helms-Burton, legal analyses by authorities including Bob Muse (writing here in Americas Quarterly), Hogan Lovells, and others make clear the President and his appointees, such as the Treasury Secretary, can make big changes in the policy based on powers they already have.

For example, President George W. Bush exercised that power by curtailing mercilessly travel by Cuban-Americans to visit their families on the island, putting a damper on legal U.S. farm exports to feed the Cuban people, and authorizing the program to lure Cuban doctors from their foreign postings.

President Obama has also taken executive action on Cuba before. In 2009, he restored the right of the diaspora community to travel to Cuba and provide financial support to their families, and in 2011 he reopened people-to-people travel. Presidents do have the power to act.

There will be phony suggestions about upstaging the Congress. After six years of gridlock that blocked legislation on immigration reform, critics blasted the administration for fouling the chances for a bipartisan law to emerge from Congress.  However, as John Cassidy wrote in the New Yorker, the President is being traditional, not radical, in authorizing changes in the enforcement of immigration laws. As Thomas Mann writes for Brookings, “The cost of such unrelenting opposition and gridlock is that policymaking initiative and power inevitably flow elsewhere – to the executive and the courts.”

Time and again, an aggressive faction within Congress has tried repeatedly to repeal, resist, and delay actions taken within the discretion of the President – such as revising the rules for travels and remittances – or by blocking his nominees for Cuba-related and non-Cuba related foreign policy jobs.  Until the overdue debate begins on repealing Helms-Burton, the President knows that any far-sighted action he takes to modernize Cuba policy he will be taking alone.

He knows and we know what he can and should do: expand travel and remittances from the U.S. to Cuba, stop punishing foreign companies for doing legal business with Cuba’s government, remove Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terror, expand bilateral engagement in areas like the environment, and take the steps required to free Alan Gross.

In his masterful article in Americas Quarterly, “U.S. Presidential Action on Cuba: The New Normalization?,” Robert Muse, a sanctions law specialist, lays out the legal basis for ending most of the counter-productive punishments inflicted on Cuba’s people by our government.  Mr. Obama’s power to act is not in doubt.

Will he do it?  To date the president has made modest but useful changes in the policy. There are ample reasons – substantive and political – for him to do more.  But Cuba has never been a high priority for his administration, and, after the upheavals prompted by the deal that freed Sgt. Bergdahl and his immigration speech, we can imagine that gun-shy White House advisers will counsel Mr. Obama not to do anything big on Cuba now.

Nevertheless, the climate around Cuba reforms has changed for the better this year, and we are also heartened by what Senator Marco Rubio said after his exchange with Tony Blinken at his confirmation hearing: “I am very concerned that President Obama’s nominee to be John Kerry’s deputy at the Department of State passed up several opportunities today to categorically rule out the possibility of unilateral changes to U.S. policy towards Cuba.”

We hope the President goes bold and acts soon.  We don’t expect a nationwide address – or that the networks would cover it if he did (they aired “The Biggest Loser,” “Big Bang Theory,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” and “Bones” instead of his immigration speech).

But bold action by President Obama would enable U.S.-Cuba relations to move forward, he’d get great coverage in the history books, and it’s exactly the right thing for him to do.

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China Climate Deal a Model for Big Reforms on Cuba

November 14, 2014

The deal President Obama struck with China’s President Xi Jinping committing both countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions enraged climate change deniers, elements of the coal industry, and its core supporters in Congress.

If you look at what made the breakthrough possible, how it happened, how it will be implemented, and what motivated both sides to reach the agreement, it should also make hardline supporters of Cuba sanctions very, very nervous.

President Obama went to China for the leaders’ meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, which promotes economic cooperation in the region, and for bilateral talks with China’s president.

Preceding the bilateral meeting with President Xi, diplomats from China and the U.S. negotiated agreements on trade, visas, and security; the latter referring to a U.S. priority to get China’s military to adopt international norms and reduce conflicts over borders as well as disputes over fishing and land rights.

The climate change agreement, which came about after “nine months of quiet dialogue between the two countries,” was described by Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations as “a serious diplomatic breakthrough after years of unsuccessful efforts to do something big and joint that goes beyond clean energy cooperation and gets to one of the most sensitive parts of climate policy.”

China and the United States are the world’s two biggest emitters of carbon pollution, the main driver of climate change. Opponents of climate change legislation in the U.S. consistently cite China’s reluctance to cap its carbon emissions as evidence that action by the U.S. would be a futile exercise. By negotiating a deal with Xi, Mr. Obama has taken that excuse out of play.

According to James Fallows writing in The Atlantic, China was moved to action because it recognized that “environmental damage of all kinds is the greatest threat to its sustainability — even more than the political corruption and repression to which its pollution problems are related.”

What most infuriates President Obama’s domestic political opponents is not just the forward movement he produced through bilateral diplomacy before the two summits in China, but the fact that the president can fulfill our part of the agreement by taking executive action.

By pledging to use the power of his office to do what Congress has proven unable and unwilling to do, the president’s climate deal was called by one analyst, “arguably as significant on pure foreign policy terms as it is on environmental terms. It sets a precedent of the U.S. and China not just cooperating on a difficult issue — as a very rich country and a poorer country, their climate policies are necessarily at odds — but cooperating on global leadership.”

Equally important, the president demonstrated that his foreign policy could walk and chew gum at the same time by scoring several critical agreements with China while also reaffirming his concerns about China’s record on human rights.

There is no clearer case for what President Obama should do in Cuba than what he just accomplished in China.

He used engagement and quiet diplomacy to reach agreements that reflected the national interest of both countries. He will implement the deal by executive action. By reaching an agreement that replaced inaction by China with a substantial climate change commitment, he removed the greatest barrier — at least rhetorically — to real action on climate by the United States. He managed to negotiate these complicated accords ahead of two key summits so that he wouldn’t have to travel to the region empty handed.

Today, the greatest obstacle to progress with Cuba is the continued imprisonment of Alan Gross on the island and the sentences being served by three Cuban spies in the United States. Gross broke Cuban law by engaging in regime change activities, and the Cuban spies broke U.S. law by failing to register as foreign agents as they investigated exile terror groups that had killed Cuban citizens.

President Obama can use the powers of his office to strike the deal that will free Mr. Gross and the Cuban prisoners while also removing the biggest impediment to greater U.S. engagement with Cuba on a variety of issues, including human rights.

There is nothing he can do to win over his most virulent opponents in Congress. Just yesterday, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen denounced Cuba for its leadership in the fight against Ebola and criticized any effort to free Alan Gross that would include negotiations with Cuba.

But if the president wants to succeed at next year’s Summit of the Americas, where all of our nation’s hemispheric allies will be joined at the table by Cuba, he must make substantial changes in our foreign policy toward the island’s government, as Richard Feinberg argues here.

Just as he struck a deal with China to control carbon emissions over the objections of climate deniers while also restating our nation’s commitment to human rights, the president can overcome those invested in our current, polluted relationship with Cuba by changing the climate around U.S. diplomacy toward Cuba.

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After the Deluge: Is There Hope President Obama Will Act On Cuba?

November 7, 2014

Last summer, where was the “smart money” when a deluge of unaccompanied kids fled violence and despair in Central America to seek safe haven in South Texas, upending the drive for immigration reform in the Congress, and raising the possibility that President Obama would use his executive authority to reform the immigration system on his own?

NBC News spoke for the smart money when they assured us on July 29th, “Expect these actions to take place in August – after Congress leaves town.”

Yet, we’re still waiting. The President, presumably speaking for his administration, told Chuck Todd on Meet the Press that he would act after the midterms, “because it’s the right thing for the country.” He told immigration activists one month ago: “no force on earth can stop us.” In October, he was fired up and ready to go.

Now, according to some analysts, “The midterms may have killed bold executive action on immigration.”

Our point is? Nobody knows what the president will do. Whether it’s reforming immigration or modernizing U.S.-Cuba relations, nobody knows if we’re waiting for Godot or for the sun to come out tomorrow.

***

To the New York Times, such indulgent speculation is a distraction. On Sunday, the editorial board spoke again and pressed the President to “expand trade, travel opportunities, and greater contact between Americans and Cubans” on the way toward “reestablishing formal diplomatic ties.”

But, the Times said, to accomplish these very important things, the President first would have to remove the chief obstacle to a diplomatic breakthrough. That means cutting a deal with Cuba’s government to free Alan Gross by swapping him “for three convicted Cuban spies who have served more than 16 years in federal prison.”

This is political poison to hardliners who want sanctions on Cuba for perpetuity. It took a celebrated Cuban dissident, fiction writer, and blogger Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo just three words to lay out their position against taking action to secure Mr. Gross’s release: “Let him rot!”

It really works for hardline supporters of U.S. sanctions like Mr. Pardo – photographed here with Senators Bob Menendez (NJ) and Marco Rubio (FL) – to keep Alan Gross right where he is, precisely because his continued captivity is the biggest obstacle to the White House and the Congress approving big changes in Cuba policy.

Why else would they insist, month after month, year after year, that the only correct way for our government to secure Alan Gross’s freedom is by demanding Cuba release him unconditionally; something which Cuba demonstrates, month after month, year after year, it just won’t do?

Hardliners repeat three things to prevent progress in his case. They deny he did anything wrong. As Senator Rubio says, Alan Gross was “wrongfully jailed in the first place.” They oppose negotiations, or as Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen tweeted with Pardo-like pithiness: “No concessions.” They up the ante. Unless Cuba’s government releases Mr. Gross unconditionally, as Senator Rubio says, “The U.S. should put more punitive measures on the Castro regime.”

What made the New York Times editorial so effective was how it dismantled each objection to doing the deal.

The Times explained what Mr. Gross was actually doing in Cuba — pursuing a “covert pro-democracy” initiative that is illegal under Cuban law. Because this makes the “unconditional release strategy” a dead end, the Times said “The Obama administration should swap him for three convicted Cuban spies,” which could send most hardliners into a rage spiral.

Next, the editorial spelled out what happens if Mr. Obama approves the swap: “A prisoner exchange could pave the way toward re-establishing formal diplomatic ties, positioning the United States to encourage positive change in Cuba.” But, it closed saying, “If Alan Gross died in Cuban custody, the prospect of establishing a healthier relationship with Cuba would be set back for years.” It’s rotten for Mr. Gross and his family, and those really are the stakes.

***

Again, the smart money says Mr. Obama will “do something” on Cuba now that the midterms are over. So, when Presidential Press Secretary Josh Earnest sidestepped a reporter’s question this week, and wouldn’t rule out negotiations with Cuba to secure Mr. Gross’s freedom, it was tempting to think “That’s the signal! President Obama must be nearing the decision we’ve all been waiting for.” Well, it kind of depends which President Obama we’re talking about.

Is it the President who’s been punting on immigration? Or, is it the President who said Wednesday, “I’m the guy who’s elected by everybody, not just from a particular state or a particular district. And they want me to push hard to close some of these divisions, break through some of the gridlock, and get stuff done.”

Again, are we waiting for the sun to shine or are we waiting for Godot?

Nobody cares more about who’s going to show up in the Oval Office to make this decision and get stuff done than Alan Gross. Is there hope? We hope so. But nobody really knows.

Read CDA Director Sarah Stephens’ recent blog post about Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo’s “Let him rot” tweet here.

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