Cuba Reforms: Hope versus the Subcommittee of Many Syllables

January 30, 2015

The writers at West Wing would never let this into a script.

Next Tuesday, the first hearing on President Obama’s decision to normalize relations with Cuba takes place in …wait for it… the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, Transnational Crime, Civilian Security, Democracy, Human Rights and Global Women’s Issues.

That’s more syllables than even Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke could handle. But, the panel’s chairman, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, must think he is up for the job (or maybe this job).

Senator Rubio, a big fan of travel and trade with China, supports tightening sanctions and cancelling negotiations with Cuba’s government due to its human rights policies.

Cuba hearings on Capitol Hill are normally cringe-worthy affairs dominated by hardliners backed by handpicked crowds, with moderates of both parties absent or silent, and with a few progressives checking in to remind everyone that policy didn’t work and never would.

This time could be different. Rubio, who strenuously opposes the diplomatic breakthrough, will not be peering down at the witnesses alone, even with all the prerogatives that come with banging his chairman’s gavel.

His panel has Senator Jeff Flake, a Republican Senator from Arizona, who just introduced bipartisan legislation to repeal all restrictions on the rights of U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba.

Senator Tom Udall – a cosponsor of the Flake bill, who joined the delegation that brought Alan Gross home from Cuba – sits on the Democratic side of the dais (he was chairman of the subcommittee when it had a much shorter name).

The presiding Democrat is Senator Barbara Boxer, who wrote about her first visit to Cuba in 2002 with CDA’s Freedom to Travel to Cuba campaign, in this column in which she endorsed the Obama reforms.

In sum, this hearing – in the Subcommittee of many syllables – offers the hopeful prospect of balance, a real departure from hearings held in the past (much like the policy itself).

We’re not naïve, but this is indicative of a different mindset emerging on Capitol Hill.

Members of Congress are clearly energized by increases in public support for diplomatic relations with Cuba – by the influential agricultural coalition that wants Congress to end the embargo – by businesses large and small eager to trade with Cuba – and by leaders like Governor Cuomo who seek to champion the cause of expanding trade. There’s even a bipartisan coalition for modernizing the policy in the U.S. House!

They may also feel bolder because both countries appear to be keeping their heads in the talks on diplomatic recognition. U.S. and Cuban negotiators got a nice shout-out from the New York Times this morning for being focused on the task – despite the distractions of domestic politics and the temptation to revert to divisive rhetoric, given the lack of trust with which each country eyes the motives of the other.

What does this mean for Tuesday?

Even if conflict and caterwaul resound during the first hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, Transnational Crime, Civilian Security, Democracy, Human Rights and Global Women’s Issues, hope could drown it all out.

The hope of José Daniel Ferrer, a leading dissident, quoted by the Times saying he has “reassessed his early concern that normalization of relations would embolden the Cuban government and hurt the cause of those who have been pressing for democratic reforms.”

The hope of Manuel Valdes, a young Cuban, who told NBC News, “I want to say to the good people of the States that finally we are not supposed to be enemies. I never felt that we are enemies, not at all, but our disagreeing politics, or political systems, pushed us to feel that way, and finally, that’s not happening anymore.”

The hope of Jim Donaldson, an American triathlete, who experienced one of the best examples of the benefits of engagement ever, “At the awards ceremony, a couple of Americans had won the juniors race, and they played the American national anthem…It was pretty exhilarating to hear the US national anthem played in Cuba.”

In a battle between the Subcommittee of many syllables and American athletes singing the Star Spangled Banner in Cuba with their hands over their hearts, who would you bet on?

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Obama’s Cuba Policy & the Taming of the Shrill

January 23, 2015

Photo: White House

In his State of the Union Address on Tuesday evening, President Obama devoted 127 words to his new policy on Cuba.

“In Cuba, we are ending a policy that was long past its expiration date. When what you’re doing doesn’t work for fifty years, it’s time to try something new. Our shift in Cuba policy has the potential to end a legacy of mistrust in our hemisphere; removes a phony excuse for restrictions in Cuba; stands up for democratic values; and extends the hand of friendship to the Cuban people. And this year, Congress should begin the work of ending the embargo. As His Holiness, Pope Francis, has said, diplomacy is the work of ‘small steps.’ These small steps have added up to new hope for the future in Cuba. And after years in prison, we’re overjoyed that Alan Gross is back where he belongs. Welcome home, Alan.”

In a passage lasting just a minute, he stated publicly that our country was abandoning our failed regime change policies, he prodded Cuba to open up politically, he invoked Pope Francis’s blessing, and he welcomed Alan Gross home.

Give the man his due — this paragraph packed a lot of punch. We had little time to celebrate or savor this historic change in direction. The following morning, diplomats representing the U.S. and Cuba sat down and began talking about not just migration issues, but the mechanics of normalizing diplomatic relations and the enduring differences we have on human rights.

The accelerating pace of change around his Cuba policy reforms feels remarkable. It “only” took us six decades of failure to get here. He announced the decision to normalize relations just five weeks ago. The new regulations to implement parts of the new policy have been out for eight days. More important, the President’s decision to go big on Cuba policy – and to disregard his strongest critics – is paying off with the American people.

As the Wall Street Journal reported this week, his public approval is at its highest point in more than a year. Sixty percent of those polled nationally – but also 66% of those 18-34, 65% of Hispanics, 58% of white voters, 51% of those living in the south, even 41% of Republicans answering the survey – support what the president has done. Presidents are never bigger than when they are the vital centers of action in our public life.

Perhaps that is why his sternest critics seem so small by comparison. While they are still in a position to make trouble for the policy – using budget bills to reverse reforms and staging hearings to discredit diplomacy – they are heading in a direction where it is increasingly easy to disregard what they say.

We are not talking about political stunts at the margin, like when the New Jersey Legislature expressed “Profound Disagreement” with the President’s breakthrough, or Senator Lindsey Graham promised to block funds for an embassy that is already standing. Those acts play at the margins.

What we are talking about is hardliners like Senator Marco Rubio, whose response to the Cuba “thaw” has left a trail of contradictions and inconsistencies.

Like, for example, when he sent a letter to President Obama in early January demanding that diplomatic talks in Havana be canceled because he believed that Cuba wasn’t following through on the promise to free 53 political prisoners. Then, a couple days later, Cuba released the dissidents.

Or when, citing human rights concerns, he said he would block the appointment of an ambassador to Cuba, even though he had recently voted to confirm the U.S. ambassador to China.

Or that time he questioned the legality of the President using his regulatory authority to loosen restrictions on travel and transactions in Cuba, even though President Bush had used his presidential powers to tighten restrictions on travel.

And it’s not just Senator Rubio – each time the hardliners criticize the President for changing the policy, they assert that he’s been snookered by the Castros when it comes to human rights. Yet, on Friday morning when Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson met with dissidents in Havana after wrapping up her meetings with counterparts from the Cuban Foreign Ministry, Berta Soler, who’s been lionized in the United States by the hardliners, didn’t even attend. Why wouldn’t she demonstrate the respect of attending a meeting with the highest ranking U.S. diplomat to visit Cuba in 38 years? Because she didn’t approve of the other activists who had been invited.

Our country has spent six decades fighting and refighting the Cold War in Cuba. The President made a courageous decision to protect the national interest – to do right by the Cuban people and the American people – by changing direction. This is understandably destabilizing to people – in the heart of the diaspora community, and among political dissidents in Cuba – who became invested decades ago in seeing things only one way.

Not everyone agrees with what President Obama has done. Many of those who don’t are trying to find their voice in a very demanding time. And the others? There is a saying around Washington that the only thing worse than being wrong is being irrelevant. It’s a calamity when you’re both. Read the rest of this entry »

Cuba, the U.S., and Obama’s State of the Union

January 16, 2015

When President Obama speaks before a Joint Session of Congress on Tuesday night, his State of the Union Address could be unlike any we have ever heard, should he address U.S.-Cuba relations.

In his 1898 message to Congress, President McKinley justified U.S. intervention in the Spanish-American War as “the interests of humanity [and] the duty to protect the life and property of our citizens in Cuba,” and also referred to the battle in Guantanamo Bay, “where it had been determined to establish a naval station.”

In 1903, President Teddy Roosevelt said because “Cuba lies at our doors, and whatever affects her for good or for ill affects us also,” the U.S. government had inserted a provision, the Platt Amendment, into the Cuban Constitution giving us a veto power over Cuban affairs. “We took the ground that Cuba must hereafter have closer political relations with us than with any other power.”

In his 1961 State of the Union Address, President John Kennedy asserted the Cold War right of the United States to prevent “Communist domination in this Hemisphere.”

Two decades later, it was President Reagan, delivering his State of the Union Address, promising “those who would export terrorism and subversion in the Caribbean and elsewhere, especially Cuba and Libya, we will act with firmness.”

But, the ideas embodied in those speeches lost their resonance long ago. Our foreign policy is no longer guided either by Manifest Destiny or the conditions of Cold War. Because he has changed the policy, President Obama can now reframe how his State of the Union speech addresses Cuba, and how his successors do so as well.

This policy is different because it is no longer driven exclusively by ideology – there is a case for calling it conservative – but it is certainly practical, pragmatic, and already more effective.

Because the goal is sending more visitors to the island to exchange ideas with the Cuban people, the Obama policy reduces paperwork barriers to travel, and extracts the bureaucracy from deciding whether U.S. travelers should settle their hotel and bar bills using cash or credit cards.

Because the goal is boosting the access of Cubans to information, the policy says that it is no longer necessary to ask the Federal government for a license so travelers can bring thumb drives, laptops, or cellphones to Cuba as gifts.

When the goal is promoting human rights, the Obama policy reached the common sense conclusion that it was the presence of diplomacy – not its absence – that would help persuade Cuba to release 53 political prisoners from its jails and enable both countries to swap spies, and bring Alan Gross back to his family and his home.

What Obama has done – which his predecessors didn’t and somehow couldn’t – is to open a considerable amount of political space for actors other than government officials and public servants to do the hard but necessary work of bringing Cuba and the United States closer together.

Many Cuban Americans have labored bravely for decades in a hostile environment in which the expression of moderate views was met with disapproval — and in some cases with force — from bullies and extremists. Their hands are now stronger in the effort to change the conversation in their community because they now have the President leading the charge as well as lots and lots of allies.

By changing the policy and setting a new tone tone at the top, the President has encouraged a more diverse, democratic, and decent debate. The government no longer holds an effective monopoly on who can engage with civil society in Cuba. Cuban American families can now be joined by pastors and rabbis, ball players and marine scientists, artists and experts, in conducting the kinds of meaningful exchanges that bring societies together in ways that diplomats (and certainly Beltway Contractors) cannot.

As Fulton Armstrong reminds us, “the ties between the American and Cuban people can be a very powerful engine for truly normal relations.” This is our chance to make those ties even stronger.

As the coalition expands to include the business community, farmers, businesses and individuals with legacy claims for compensation for property that was expropriated, and lots of others with reason to work on behalf of an open policy, the momentum favoring reform will increase substantially.

Diplomacy remains essential – as illustrated by the trip that Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson will undertake next week – for the resumption of diplomatic relations, the opening of our two embassies, and the expression of our disagreements on human rights and political issues, and much more.

We hope the President talks about these changes, as he should, but that he also prepares the public and the Congress for the road ahead.

The two countries and the two publics cannot mend this historically broken relationship overnight. As our friend Rafael Hernandez has written, “the main weakness Cuba needs to overcome is not its lesser physical power, but its siege mentality. The United States, on the other hand, needs to overcome its sense of super power arrogance vis-à-vis a small neighbor. Most counterproductive policies on both sides, from the Bay of Pigs fiasco to Cuba’s Internet restrictions, have been the consequence of these weaknesses.”

Even on our best days, this will take time. The instinct to provoke – by hardliners on both sides of the Florida Strait – will remain and even grow more desperate, as the provocateurs increasingly find themselves living in a bygone age. Tuesday night offers the President a unique platform for giving power and voice to the new ways in which Cuba and the United States can engage with and relate to each other respectfully.

No other president in our history has given a State of the Union Address like that.

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Time the Conqueror: Rumors, Reforms, and Realities

January 9, 2015

Little has preoccupied the American mindset toward Cuba like our morbid fascination with Fidel Castro’s mortality.

The CIA plotted to kill him, often haplessly, and never with “results”. It outsourced the job to contractors, which tied our government to terrorism in the hemisphere. Congress and President Clinton made his demise a predicate for lifting the embargo. The combination of presidential politics, Cuban American unity, and the frightening, persistent memories of the missile crisis ensured that the personalization of Cuba policy to shortening his lifespan would endure beyond relevance or imagining.

This Castro death clock cult often revealed itself in odd ways. There was the confident prediction in 2006 by the Director of National Intelligence (an office created after 9/11 to better coordinate facts and analysis) that “it will not be much longer…months, not years,” because Castro was ill and close to death.

There was the 2007 decision by the City of Miami to reserve the 72,000 seat Orange Bowl for a fiesta. “There is something to celebrate, regardless of what happens next,” said then City Commissioner Tomas Regalado who proposed the plan, because “We get rid of the guy.” Elected Mayor of Miami, he discovered in 2012 that his “Castro Death Plan” needed to be revised since the Orange Bowl had been demolished in 2008.

Predictably, none of this obsessing took into account how Cubans, even foes of the government, respected Fidel Castro for their country’s accomplishments under his rule. Little analysis offered to the U.S. public reflected the notion that even the most nationalistic Cubans could look past the days of his leadership and move on. “What would happen in Cuba when Fidel Castro dies?” Arturo Lopez Levy asked rhetorically. Not chaos. Not counter-revolution. “A funeral.”

Today, rumors are swirling again. The intense interest in Fidel Castro’s health – first triggered during the era of the teletype – is now “catching fire,” as one news organization writes, throughout social media. We’re long past the day when the news waited for evidence and government statements; now, just a tweet or two are enough to constitute journalistic probable cause.

Not all of this interest is prurient. Fidel Castro is without question a dominant figure in Cuba’s history and our own. But, we shouldn’t be blind to the future, as a poet wrote, because the past offers a path of least resistance. His life and his death are not beginnings or ends unto themselves, and other actors and events will illuminate the path forward.

President Obama charted a new course with President Raúl Castro just over three weeks ago. His politically courageous decision to remake the policy is already showing results.

  • On January 21st, the day after the President’s State of the Union Address, Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson, will begin negotiations in Cuba under the aegis of the migration talks, to work on the details of diplomatic recognition with her Cuban counterparts. Although she has been to Cuba before, in her current capacity she will be the highest ranking official to visit Cuba in decades.
  • Despite demands by Senator Marco Rubio to cancel the talks until all political prisoners are released by Cuba, the State Department, in rejecting this advice, made a broader commitment to delinking progress to acts of repression on the island or to the pace Cuba takes to implement its end of the agreement, while maintaining the historic U.S. commitment to human rights. This is a big departure from how diplomacy has been practiced toward Cuba since 1959, and emblematic of the revitalized role that the President’s Western Hemisphere Affairs foreign policy team is playing, described here by Fulton Armstrong.
  • The Senate has a new chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Bob Corker (TN), who is now calling the Cuba embargo “ineffective.” That won’t shut down hostile reactions to the President’s policy by pro-embargo hardliners in his committee, but it does demonstrate how the Obama-Castro agreement has opened up political space in unexpected ways.
  • That political oxygen is affecting the status quo in Miami, once a unified bastion of hardline support. As USA Today described it, “In years past, merely mentioning the end of the economic embargo on Cuba or pushing for more diplomatic ties with the island would get you shouted down in Miami.” But now, with polls showing far greater diversity in opinion among the diaspora community, and new, powerful voices being lifted in advertisements and talking points, the changes unleashed by President Obama during his two terms in office will only accelerate.
  • Other powerful coalitions, like the one which emerged this week among agriculture interests committed to lifting the embargo in its entirety, will join them, thanks to the new possibilities people see in President Obama’s new policy.

These are just some of the healthy new realities that have become clearer, more evident, since Presidents Obama and Castro addressed their publics last month. Not everything going forward will look positive or new. The confrontation that played out between Cuba’s government and Cuban artists – this week and last – will not be the last incident we see.

There is no rationalization for repression, but we also know that incidents like this are inevitable; some will involve people acting conscientiously, others premeditated for the purpose of disrupting change. You can bet that hardliners here at home will seize on such incidents as evidence that U.S. policy should not change, or that it should be made even harsher.

This is not the time for second-guessing. The U.S. national interest will best be advanced by the new policy President Obama has crafted – not by the one he is trying to replace – and our focus now is on giving that policy a chance to work. Part of its brilliance resides in the fact that we didn’t wait any longer for the biological obsession of the old policy to bear fruit.

Time is the conqueror, and timing is everything.

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