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

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.

IN CUBA

Cuba seeks billions in foreign investment

Malmierca Diaz, Cuba’s Minister of Foreign Commerce, asked foreign investors present at Havana’s International Fair to invest $8.7 billion in 246 projects that Cuba’s government hopes will boost economic growth, the AP reports. “Cuba is pushing strongly to take advantage of the benefits associated with foreign investment to stimulate development,” Malmierca said.

The investment portfolio, made available online by 14ymedio, presents investment opportunities including oil production, tourism, agriculture, renewable energy, and others. Areas for investment include the Mariel special economic zone, Havana, and some smaller cities like Artemisa, Cienfuegos, and even Isla de la Juventud.

Cuba’s government has said that it needs to attract some $2 billion annually to help stimulate greater economic growth. Earlier this year, Cuba’s National Assembly approved a new law granting steep tax cuts and security guarantees to foreign investors. Cuban officials also hope that foreign companies will invest in the recently constructed Mariel special economic zone, which was financed in part by Brazil.

Malmierca’s announcement comes as Cuban economists are calling for greater urgency in implementing more robust reforms. Since the reform process began, change has been slow, a speed some Cuban officials are quick to defend. “Many people complain about the time in which we do things, but everyone’s got their own pace,” Malmierca said. “We’re going to do this our way and we want to do it well.”

According to Granma, some thirty countries have made investment proposals for agriculture, light industry, construction, and renewable energy projects in Mariel, and Cuba expects those projects to begin by the end of this year and in the beginning months of 2015.

Thousands of state restaurants to be privatized

The operation of some 8,000 state-run food establishments, which employ more than 100,000 workers, will be handed over to cooperatives or private owners, IPS reports. The property will still be owned by the government, but equipment and other resources will be turned over to private owners and can be bought and sold.

The process of turning restaurants and small cafeterías over to the private sector began in a small number of cities in 2012 as part of an effort to increase the notoriously low quality of Cuba’s food services.

With the operation of these services in the hands of the private sector, their prices will be determined by supply and demand. But, as one retired construction worker told IPS, “it doesn’t matter whose hands (the establishments) are in. Prices are generally high and most people cannot go to restaurants.”

Six teachers convicted of academic fraud

Six Cuban teachers have been handed prison sentences ranging from one to four years after having purchased copies of the country’s university entrance exam, Granma reports. The teachers bought the exams from a Ministry of Higher Education employee, who was also charged in the case and sentenced to eight years in prison.

The accused teachers will also have to pay some 29,000 pesos (CUP) in damages to the University of Havana and The Ministry of Higher Education, which had to cancel and re-issue the country-wide exam.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

EU and Cuba set date for third round of negotiations

The third round of negotiations for the signing of the Political Dialogue and Cooperation Agreement between Cuba and the EU will take place in Havana on January 8th and 9th of next year, AFP reports. Negotiations began in April of this year, and a second round was convened in August.

On the negotiating table for the third round are human rights and civil society issues. The conversations “will not be easy,” said Herman Portocarero, the EU’s ambassador to Cuba, “but we are talking and listening on both sides, that’s what is most important.”

The EU’s Common Position, which in 1996 suspended the EU’s relations with the island pending “improvements in human rights and political freedom” and an “irreversible opening of the Cuban economy,” will continue to remain in effect throughout the negotiations.

As a further sign of change, Colombia’s president Jose Manuel Santos visited several EU member countries this week to increase support for the ongoing peace talks between his government and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC). Those talks have been underway in Havana for two years, and the sides have already made tentative agreements on three out of the five points of their peace agenda.

Brazilian federal prosecutor criticizes “Más Médicos” program

A federal prosecutor in Brazil has called Cuba’s “Más Médicos” program “frankly illegal,” according to the AP. The program sends hundreds of Cuban doctors into rural areas of Brazil to provide medical care to low-income communities.

Brazil’s government compensates Cuba’s government through the World Health Organization, but only a fourth of that payment is converted into salaries for the doctors. A statement released by Brazil’s federal prosecutor’s office argued that the program amounted to a violation of fair labor practices, and it urged Brazil’s government to pay the doctors directly.

Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff faced criticism over the program in her recent re-election campaign, but she defended the Cuban doctors, pointing out that they make health services more accessible in municipalities that previously lacked doctors.

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS


White House gives vague response on negotiations to free Alan Gross

After the New York Times Editorial Board published an editorial on Monday that urged President Obama to negotiate a prisoner swap with Cuba to secure the release of Alan Gross, a U.S. development worker, a reporter asked White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest if the Obama Administration would consider a swap.

Earnest did not rule out the possibility, choosing instead to offer a more generic response. “The U.S. believes that Mr. Gross should be released immediately,” he said. “Cuba’s failure to release Mr. Gross is hurting the relationship between the United States and Cuba.”

Mr. Gross was arrested in Cuba in 2009 for smuggling advanced communications equipment into the country. The editorial argues that Obama should offer to release the three Cuban intelligence agents that were convicted of espionage in 2001 in exchange for Gross’ return to the United States.

Those agents are the remaining members of the “Cuban Five,” a group of intelligence agents that had infiltrated Cuban-American dissident groups in South Florida in the 1990s. All five were “prosecuted for conspiracy to commit espionage (as there was no evidence they had gathered any classified US information) and given maximum sentences ranging from fifteen years to double life in prison,” as the historian Peter Kornbluh explained. They have been hailed in Cuba as heroes ever since.

Multiple international organizations, including the United Nations and Amnesty International, have called the fairness of their trials into question. One agent, Gerardo Hernández, received two life prison sentences for conspiracy to commit murder, based on the allegation that he helped Cuba’s government shoot down two planes operated by the U.S.-based dissident group “Brothers to the Rescue,” a plan of which he was unaware according to filings in his appeal. Two of the agents have since been released and have returned to Cuba.

Alan Gross’ mental and physical health have severely deteriorated during his imprisonment, and in August he said a final goodbye to his family, telling his lawyer that his life was “not worth living” anymore. Calls for the Obama administration to negotiate his release have intensified in recent months, and the New York Times editorial has been a welcome addition to the chorus.

Former Gov. Charlie Crist and Rep. Joe Garcia defeated in Florida

Charlie Crist, the Republican-turned-Democrat, who served as Florida’s governor from 2007 to 2011, and sought to return to the post by defeating the state’s incumbent Governor, lost the race in Tuesday’s election to Rick Scott by a 1.4% margin.

One factor that made the race distinctive was Crist’s decision to campaign as an advocate for lifting the U.S. embargo against Cuba, something candidates running statewide and in national elections in Florida never had the courage to do. While lobbyists who seek tougher Cuban sanctions ridiculed Crist after the race was called for Scott, saying “no opponent of the Cuban embargo has ever won state-wide in Florida,” they apparently spoke before the release of exit polls which followed how Cuban-Americans voted in the Florida election.

As reported by CNN, Crist captured a majority of Cuban-Americans, whose turnout is typically dominated in midterm elections by older, conservative, and Republican voters. As #CubaNow Executive Director Ric Hererro explains, “Even accounting for a large margin of error, this outcome pales in comparison to Scott’s support among Cuban-Americans in 2010, when he won that coveted vote 68%-32%.

This is indicative of the ongoing sea-change in the diaspora community’s political orientation with implications for presidential elections going forward; although this will be of little solace to Crist or to Rep. Joe Garcia, who lost his bid for reelection to a second term in office from Florida’s 26th Congressional District.

Garcia, an advocate for expanding travel and remittances to Cuba, was ousted by his Republican opponent Carlos Curbelo, the founder of a media relations firm and a Miami-Dade County School Board Member, who supports the embargo. The margin was approximately 4,000 votes.

Andy Gomez, a former University of Miami provost and author of a new book, “Social Challenges Facing Cuba,” told the journalist Tim Padgett, that the squabbles that took place over Cuba between Garcia, the Cuban-American Congressman, who was defeated by Curbelo, his Cuban-American challenger, represented a reversion to the politics that no longer engages the majority of the diaspora community.

“Sure we care about Cuba,” Gomez says. “But Cuba is no longer a top priority in these elections…Every once in a while we fall back into the politics of passion, and this is what we were seeing between Curbelo and Garcia.”

Bacardi hopes to return to Cuba

Joaquin Bacardi, president of rum producer Bacardi Limited, told Just-Drinks that he plans to resume production of rum on the island if the embargo is lifted. “Rest assured,” he said, “when the embargo lifts, Bacardi is going to have a presence in Cuba again someday.”

After the Cuban Revolution, as Tom Gjelten wrote in Bacardi and the Long Fight For Cuba, the Bacardi family became “a powerful force, if not the key player, in the American anti-Castro movement concentrated in Miami.” Bacardi joins the ranks of businessmen like Alfonso Fanjul, who left Cuba after the revolution but is now looking back toward the island for investment opportunities.

Miami health insurance company fined for reimbursing medical treatment in Cuba

The U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has handed a $128,704 fine to Bupa Insurance Company, a Florida health insurance provider, for having violated U.S. Treasury Department rules by covering the expenses of medical treatment that a client received in Cuba, among other charges, according to a statement released by OFAC. The OFAC’s Cuban Assets Control Regulations prohibits U.S. companies from reimbursing any transactions that took place in Cuba.

Recommended Reading

Now on Sale: My Havana: The Musical City Of Carlos Varela

We are pleased to announce the publication of “My Havana,” a book of essays by writers from two continents who use Carlos Varela’s life and music “to explore the history and cultural politics of Cuba.” The foreword is written by Jackson Browne.

Carlos Varela, pictured here, is respected and heard in Cuba and around the world for the beauty of his music and the blazing honesty of his lyrics. He once said, “My cubanidad [Cuban identity] is far from the guy in a guayabera with a cigar. In my songs you don’t see nature; you see asphalt and gasoline.”

Carlos Varela is a great friend of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, and a leader who believes the bridge-builders who will reconnect the people of Cuba and the United States will arise from artists and not politicians on either side of the Florida Strait. Like CDA, he believes in engagement. As he said in an interview a few years ago:

“I am convinced that as artists we can achieve more than politicians have in over 50 years of bad relations to create a special communication between people who differ in political ideology. As artists we are more in touch with reality and better understand the priorities of the average citizen.”

We congratulate him and the editors, Maria Caridad Cumaná, Karen Dubinsky, and Xenia Reloba de la Cruz, on the publication of the book.

Why Cuba Is So Good at Fighting Ebola, Alexandra Sifferlin, Time

Cuba, by sending some 50,000 health workers to serve in 66 countries around the world, has set itself apart as a leader in global health. “This is something built into the psyche of Cuban doctors and nurses — the idea that ‘I am a public servant,’” says Gail Reed, co-founder of Medical Education Cooperation with Cuba (MEDICC). “It’s coming from a commitment to make health care a universally accepted right.”

Cuba’s Economic Change in Comparative Perspective, Brookings Institution

Brookings Fellows Ted Piccone and Richard Feinberg have compiled six essays from scholars and policymakers that address economic changes in Cuba and the implications for the international community.

Controlled panic on Calle Ocho, Phil Peters, The Cuban Triangle

Supporters of continuing the U.S. sanctions program against Cuba are fighting an increasingly uphill battle, Peters argues. Word of approaching changes in U.S. policy toward the island “has provoked unease among embargo advocates, who may be wondering if the wheels are starting to come off the wagon that has dragged this foreign policy relic well into the 21st century.”

U.S. Presidential Action on Cuba: The New Normalization, Robert Muse, Americas Quarterly

Robert Muse provides a breakdown of the changes President Obama needs to make to normalize U.S.-Cuba relations, and he explains how the President can enforce each change using executive authority.

Cuba’s female umpire seeks to keep breaking barriers, Daniel Trotta, Reuters

Yanet Moreno is the only female professional baseball umpire in the world. She has worked for 11 seasons in Cuba’s professional league, and she hopes one day to umpire the World Baseball Classic.

Recommended Listening

Playing The Cuba Card: Can South Florida Escape Its Political Addiction?, Tim Padgett, WLRN

Tim Padgett reports that some South Florida voters have expressed frustration that the recent congressional race between Joe Garcia and Carlos Curbelo focused heavily on the issue of U.S.-Cuba relations.

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