Victory on Cuba: As 2014 ends, a new battle begins

December 26, 2014

Last week’s announcement that the U.S. and Cuba would re-establish diplomatic relations was cause for celebration in both countries.

President Obama’s bold changes in Cuba policy mark the culmination of decades of tireless work by pro-engagement activists. Now is the time to end the embargo once and for all. We need your help in this historic time of change. Please consider giving to CDA at this crucial moment.

CDA director Sarah Stephens was in Havana and personally witnessed the historic diplomatic breakthrough. Cubans cheered and sang their national anthem with tears streaming down their faces. It was an inspirational moment.

In the U.S., it marked a profound, long overdue shift from isolationism toward engagement and mutual respect.

At the White House end of year press conference last week, President Obama’s message was clear: “I’m not done.” Well, we’re not done either. In fact, the real fight is just beginning.

Politico reports that wealthy pro-embargo donors are digging deep into their pockets to roll back the progress we’re just now celebrating. Our opponents in Congress are already on-the-record promising to roll back the reforms, and the most aggressive pro-embargo PAC just held a gala headlined by Jeb Bush in Miami. The $200,000 they raised to back pro-embargo candidates in upcoming elections is another threat to the process of diplomatic recognition underway.

We cannot – and will not – let these challenges go unanswered.

We must redouble our efforts to make sure lobbyists and Cold-War politicians don’t destroy the historic breakthrough that has opened a new chapter for Cuba and the United States.

At this critical time, we need the support of our friends, allies, and Cuba Central Newsblast readers. We are at a crossroads. U.S.-Cuba relations could move forward on the path the President has set forth, or be set back by anti-reform politicians. Your help is essential to our work and to moving Cuba policy forward. Please contribute today.

Thank you very, very much.

The Cuba Central Team

P.S. CDA is closed next week, so we will send the next Cuba Central Newsblast on January 9th. Happy holidays!

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A Note From Havana

December 19, 2014

Para leer en español, haga clic aquí.

In Havana, December 17th was a day of miracles. The first day of Hanukkah, the Feast of Saint Lazarus, and the Afro-Cuban celebration of San Lazaro converged mystically. Magic was in the air.

It was a day for Alan Gross, echoing Judaism’s story of exile and return, to soar from confinement to freedom; a day for the island’s “Three Heroes” to land in Cuba as the faithful prayed to a saint who rose from the dead; a day when Afro-Cubans saw the hand of the “miracle worker” writing a new chapter of Cuban history; a day when Cubans could watch President Obama and President Castro speak on Cuban state television and cheer their commitment to diplomatic recognition and mutual respect.

By early morning, there were already unusual signs. A cryptic email message from Washington with the subject line: “Merry XMAS.” News readers on Cuban state television reminded viewers, again and again, tune in at noon. Hear President Castro speak about a “swap” to bring three Cuban intelligence agents home. And, later, watch his address on U.S.-Cuba relations.

Emilia Fernandez, an IT specialist at a Cuban eye surgery clinic, listened to colleagues call one another to get ready for the broadcast. A Cuban journalist glanced nervously at text messages piling up on her cell. Artists at a graphics studio near Havana’s Cathedral Square laid down pieces they had prepared for sale to gather in front of a Panasonic television; together with a few tourists, one estimated, they were twenty strong. As our conference came to order, Cuban and U.S. academics who had been waiting for this moment since President Obama’s election exchanged knowing glances, but in fact had no Earthly clue of what was to come.

Finally, noon arrived. The presidents spoke to their respective publics about more than a prisoner swap. They announced an end to the Cold War. When Raul Castro announced that Cuba would resume diplomatic relations with the U.S., Cubans cheered. They stood next to their chairs and sang Cuba’s national anthem with tears streaming down their faces. Scholars who barely knew each other hugged the person next to them and many could not let go.

For his part, Barack Obama conceded that America’s efforts to unseat the Castro government had ended in failure, and he pledged to begin removing the sanctions that force Cubans to live harder lives. After decades of rejecting Cuba’s existence, the U.S. would recognize it and treat Cuba like the sovereign state it is. All of us who have worked so hard to reach this moment sat as if we’d been stunned by a card trick of epic dimensions when we heard those words spoken.

Across town, Emilia said she sat at her work station and cried, thinking of broken Cuban families and people lost at sea attempting to reach the U.S. With restored diplomatic relations, her workmates could imagine more contact with relatives who had never looked back after leaving Cuba, and hoped they would now find their way home.

The reporter looked down at her phone. “We have to honor St. Lazarus,” the text message said, “for working this miracle on this day.”

An artist told us, “I had no idea it would be this big.” Andy, who used American flag picnic napkins and acrylics to assemble an astonishing work called Conflicto (Conflict), pronounced himself “contento.” He liked it when Obama said, “Liberty is the right of every man to be honest, to think and to speak without hypocrisy,” quoting Cuba’s George Washington, José Martí. It showed respect.

Guillermo Vantour, a painter, called the pledge for diplomatic recognition a guarantee of better conditions for investment by U.S. businesses. “I’ve been living my whole life under the blockade,” he said. “In one way or another, it affects all Cubans economically. And, for what?”

That question probably never crossed the minds of President Obama’s political opponents who have bashed him for cutting this deal with Raúl Castro instead of holding out for more concessions.

Not a single Cuban we spoke with said it would have been better to squeeze Cuba harder or for the U.S. to hold out longer. A Coco taxi driver told us, “It’s about time.” He had waited long enough.

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USAID’s Hip Hop Hiccup and the “Smart Power Prom”

December 12, 2014

A new USAID scandal was exposed yesterday by the exceptional investigative team at the Associated Press.

USAID, acting through its notorious contracting partner, Creative Associates International, tried to infiltrate Cuba’s hip-hop community to intensify the political messaging of its artists and use their fans to foment a rapper’s revolution.

The elaborate plan recruited Cuban musicians for initiatives that included trips to Europe for concerts and video workshops that were actually covers for anti-regime training. The Cuban participants did not know that the U.S. government was behind it.

Cloaked in elaborate secrecy using lawyers, front companies, and banks, the project was also concealed from Members of Congress whose job it was to scrutinize it.  Senator Patrick Leahy, the USAID oversight chairman who first learned of it Thursday, called the effort “reckless” and “stupid,” although the program ended in failure two years before. It seems that only the agency, its contractors, and Cuban state security knew what was going on.

There is a detailed item below that explains the story in nearly all of its troubling dimensions, so we’ll try to avoid duplicating it here. Instead, we focus on what comes through so clearly in the coverage and in AP’s accompanying documents, and that is the air of arrogance that permeates this latest example of the regime change program.

The U.S. completely misses the fact that Cuba has its own rap community that has been leading a conversation on the island about tough issues like race and the system’s stewardship of the revolution since the Soviet Union fell. Our government can’t imagine Cubans deciding for themselves what kind of country they want to build without our training them to do so.

As Phil Peters puts it, “This mentality views Cuban civil society as ours to shape.” You can see this myopic thinking at work in reports by the consultants (their writing is cleaned up for readability) who came to Amsterdam and Madrid to train their unwitting Cuban clients to be rappers for revolution. They found Cubans who were thoughtful, cautious, and not yet ready to take decisions that could put themselves or others at risk:

“Adrian is perceiving that their work is creating a change but he is not sure what type of change…It is my perception that he will need some time to think about change he wants to cause in his community and his personal responsibility.”

“They are perceiving themselves as young artists and they would like to stay in that role (without taking the burden of big responsibilities for societal processes) although they would like to see changes in their community.”

“Trainees were very receptive, motivated and enthusiastic… But, my impression is that they are not quite sure what this they would like to do together is? Or even better why they want to do it”

“My impression is that there is a consensus within the group they want to some changes in their society but it seems they never fully discuss what kind of changes they would like to see.”

What is slowing them down? Just take a look:

“In terms of group dynamic they are quite flat and democratic — they are bringing decisions through discussion. I am sure that was great environment to work within while executing A’s map project (a previous project) but I am not sure it would be best way for the future.”

The group was being too democratic. That must have made their democracy trainer really mad.

You’d like to think that there would be accountability, that somebody would take responsibility for this effort.

Not USAID. In making the debatable claim, “Any assertions that our work is secret or covert are simply false,” they refused to address the damage it inflicted on the existing discourse, or the risks placed on the Cubans from whom USAID involvement was concealed. USAID spokesman Matt Herrick: “It’s not something we are embarrassed about in any way.”

Not the State Department, whose spokesperson said in a briefing yesterday, “these programs are managed with appropriate discretion. So it was the responsibility of the grantee.” By grantee, we suppose she meant Creative Associates International. By responsibility, we think she was saying not the State Department’s problem.

Not the contractor, Creative. We visited the Creative website, and couldn’t find a trace of apology or even a Cuba program. Not in their news or press release page. We couldn’t even find a Cuba-Creative connection when we clicked on a map of the island on the page titled Where We Work. In the overt-covert world where they operate, Cuba seems to vanish without a trace.

We didn’t expect to find an apology because, truthfully, Washington really loves this stuff.

The U.S. Global Leadership Coalition held its annual tribute dinner the other night, an event which wags in Washington call the “Smart Power Prom.” Who was dubbed this year’s “Smart Power Prom King”? USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah.

The dinner was also a coronation of sorts for Senator Lindsay Graham, who will take the gavel from Senator Pat Leahy and chair the State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee when the new Congress convenes in January. The subcommittee oversees Dr. Shah and the programs he administers at USAID.

A trade reporter at the event quoted Graham as saying, “I challenge any other part of the American government to prove a better return on investment than USAID.”

He said that at dinner on Wednesday. If he stands by that statement today, well, that’s kind of sad.

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Freeing Alan Gross — Does it hinge on what the definition of “equivalence” is?

December 5, 2014

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ANNOUNCEMENT: CDA has started a petition asking Senator Marco Rubio and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen to end the double-standard they adhere to by allowing top staffers to visit China while opposing U.S. citizens’ right to travel to Cuba. Watch the video below and sign the petition here.

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A sad and troubling milestone was passed on Wednesday, which marked the fifth anniversary of Alan Gross’s arrest in Cuba.

This week, the State Department said, “[his] continued incarceration represents a significant impediment to a more constructive bilateral relationship.” Florida politicians demanded, predictably, that the administration tighten sanctions further rather than negotiate with Cuba for his release. As White House sources assured ABC News that the president and the National Security Council were working on a solution, his family said Mr. Gross is “wasting away.”

When members of a CDA delegation saw Mr. Gross in prison in 2011, it would have been unimaginable that this drama would last this long. After several other visits, it’s still inconceivable that his life — and the future of our relations with Cuba policy — now hinges on the definition of equivalence, when his route to freedom is simple and clear. Yet, this is where things seem to stand.

In 2009, Mr. Gross, a USAID subcontractor, was arrested in Havana for committing “Acts Against the Independence or Territorial Integrity of the State.” As Peter Kornbluh explained in the Nation, “Gross was arrested on his fifth trip to Cuba while attempting to create untraceable satellite communications networks on the island; a Cuban court subsequently sentenced him to fifteen years in prison.”

For years, Cuba’s government professed its willingness to negotiate for his release. A deal seemed imminent in 2010, as Newsweek reported, until U.S. assurances that the Helms-Burton-funded activities which led to Gross’ arrest would be trimmed back were undermined by USAID itself.

Then Cuba linked a solution to the fates of five imprisoned Cuban intelligence agents. They were arrested in 1998 and later convicted in a politically-charged trial that is still being reviewed due to allegations of misconduct by the U.S. government. For crimes that included failing to register as foreign agents to engaging in a conspiracy to commit espionage, the Cubans, known at home as “the Five Heroes,” received sentences from 15-years to life in prison.

While two of the agents, René González and Fernando González, served out their terms and returned to Cuba, Gerardo Hernández, Antonio Guerrero, and Ramón Labañino remain behind bars.

The logical formula for securing Mr. Gross’s release – a prisoner exchange covering the three Cuban agents – is hardly a state secret. As the New York Times said in its editorial, “A Prisoner Swap With Cuba,”

“The American government, sensibly, is averse to negotiating with terrorists or governments that hold United States citizens for ransom or political leverage. But in exceptional circumstances, it makes sense to do so. The Alan Gross case meets that criteria.”

Hardliners call negotiating with Cuba to free Mr. Gross “appeasement.” As Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-27) has said, “Cuba is a state-sponsor of terrorism. We should not be trying to barter with them. We must demand the unconditional release of Gross, not engage in a quid-pro-quo with tyrants.”

In explaining its opposition to a swap, the State Department says, “We’ve always made it clear that there’s no equivalence between an international development worker … and convicted Cuban intelligence agents.”

Well, to paraphrase President Bill Clinton, it depends on what the meaning of the word “equivalent” is.

Bill LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh argue in the Miami Herald today that the Gross and Cuban spy cases, while different, have greater similarities than our government admits:

“Both Gross and the Cuban spies were acting as agents of their respective governments – sent by those governments into hostile territory to carry out covert operations in violation of the other country’s laws. In both cases, their governments bear responsibility for their predicament and have a moral obligation to extricate them from it.”

To end the stalemate, LeoGrande and Kornbluh call for a “parallel humanitarian exchange,” based on deals between Cuba and the U.S. during the Kennedy and Carter administrations that led to the release of 31 Americans, including several CIA agents. One can easily see how an arrangement would work today.

For its part, the White House did not use the phrase “unconditional release” in its statement on Wednesday, but instead observed, “The Cuban government’s release of Alan on humanitarian grounds would remove an impediment to more constructive relations between the United States and Cuba.” A reciprocal humanitarian gesture would involve President Obama commuting the sentences for the remaining Cubans prisoners to time served.

In the end, the humanitarian concerns that bind the Gross and Cuban agents’ cases together define their equivalence. It is their common humanity that should motivate Cuba and the U.S. to set aside ideological differences and assert their nation’s vital interests in a bilateral negotiation that reunites all four prisoners with their families.

There are no known alternative solutions; no other ways to avoid further diplomatic drift that can only end in human tragedy. Not the equivalent of a tragedy, but the real thing.

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