Time the Conqueror: Rumors, Reforms, and Realities

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.


Release of 53 political prisoners underway

At least 36 dissidents have been released from prison in Cuba in accordance with the joint announcements by Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro that prisoners held in Cuba would be freed, Reuters reports.

As President Obama said last month:

“In addition to the return of Alan Gross and the release of our intelligence agent, we welcome Cuba’s decision to release a substantial number of prisoners whose cases were directly raised with the Cuban government by my team.”

Since December 17th, the U.S. has avoided commenting on the identities of the political prisoners or the timing of their release. Opponents of reform, including the Washington Post editorial board, seized on the opacity of the process as evidence for their claim that President Obama had “betrayed” the Cuban people.

In a recent press briefing, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki came under fire when she would not disclose the exact number of prisoners released, their names, or a timeline for the release of the remaining prisoners. She responded by highlighting the sensitive nature of the process:

“We’ve been very careful about discussing these prisoners and this process because we’re not looking to put a bigger target on Cuban political dissidents…. For decades now the United States policy toward Cuba has isolated us in the region, and it has been used as an excuse by the Castro regime to blame the United States for the lack of access to the internet, to the ability to communicate in Cuba. That’s no longer the case.”

According to the Associated Press, in reaction to the release of 19-year-old twins Diango Vargas Martin and Bianko Vargas Martin, Elizardo Sanchez, the head of Cuba’s Human Rights and Reconciliation Commission, said “They’re prisoners of conscience and they’ve been freed immediately and with no conditions.”

U.S. Agriculture coalition to push for end to embargo

At least 30 U.S. agriculture companies, working in coalition as the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba (USACC), will pressure Congress to end the U.S. embargo against Cuba, the AP reports.

Since Congress enacted the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000, which made an exception to the U.S. embargo of Cuba to legalize food sales into the Cuban market, the agriculture sector has been actively engaged in supporting reforms to U.S. policy toward Cuba.

Under the law, referred to as TSRA, sales of U.S. agriculture products to Cuba exceeded $700 million in 2008, but have fallen by nearly half since then. The reduction in sales is attributed to restrictions imposed by President Bush, changes in the market, offers to Cuba of sales on credit by U.S. competitors, and the changing economic conditions on the island itself.

Due to the continuing slump in sales, as the Associated Press reported this week, “2014 could be the worst year for U.S. exports to Cuba since 2004.”

Since TSRA was enacted, farm groups have largely advocated for changes to increase sales and to repeal the statutory ban on travel to Cuba for all Americans. Never as a group have they called for repeal of the embargo itself.

“It’s going to take time for Congress to get comfortable with Cuba,” said Paul Johnson, the president of Chicago Foods International LLC, a company that handles logistics for products sold to Cuba, according to a report by AgWeb. “But we need to end this embargo.” Several important agriculture groups, including the American Farm Bureau, the Illinois Soybean Growers Association, and Cargill have expressed their support for normalization of relations with Cuba and for ending the embargo.

Speaking at the event, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said he hopes for “an honest and serious debate on what we can do to promote positive change in Cuba. That is where the American farmers and ranchers come into play.”

Last month, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon said Cuba “provides exciting prospects as an export market for the world-class goods produced by Missouri farmers.” Now, Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri will visit Cuba in February to explore opportunities for Missouri agricultural exporters, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports. The Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA) is organizing the trip.

Last month, CDA published a statement by the Honorable John Block, who served as Secretary of Agriculture during the first term of the Reagan administration, endorsing President Obama’s reforms. He said, in part, “What diplomats can accomplish at the negotiating table, farmers can accomplish at Cubans’ kitchen table; bringing our nations together over high quality food at a competitive price.”

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Could Chart New Course on Cuba

When the 114th Congress convened this week with the Republican Party firmly in control of the United States Senate, there was a surprising indication that more than the nameplates in at least one Committee hearing room had changed.

After he replaced Senator Robert Menendez as Chairman of Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Bob Corker (TN), said Wednesday that the embargo “has not yielded the result we had hoped it would yield,” The Nashville Scene reports. “We’re going to have some robust hearings,” Corker said. “Cuba has been off the front burner for a long, long time…. You’re going to see that change in the next several weeks.”

In previous years, the Committee was dominated by implacable opponents of President Obama’s reform policies who used it to block or to delay administration appointees – even for positions unrelated to Cuba policy –as leverage against modifications in the embargo.

Senator Marco Rubio (FL) will become chairman of the Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere and Global Narcotics Affairs. Shortly after last month’s announcement of renewed diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba, Senator Rubio said he would “make every effort to block this dangerous and desperate attempt” to relax trade and travel restrictions and open an embassy in Cuba.

In comments made Wednesday, however, Rubio appeared to dial back his rhetoric. “We’re going to give them a chance to make their argument,” he said. “I think their arguments are going to fail, but we’re going to take the process seriously.”

While hardliners will continue to be heard on the panel, the tone from the top has changed, and voices for a rational policy, including committee member Senator Jeff Flake (AZ), will also be amplified.

U.S. reaches $3.2 million settlement deal with Alan Gross

The U.S. government will pay $3.2 million dollars to Alan Gross in a settlement deal with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Reuters reports. Mr. Gross was released from a Cuban prison in December as a part of a larger agreement reached between President Obama and Cuba’s President Raúl Castro to normalize relations. He was arrested in 2009 for bringing illegal communications equipment into Cuba as a part of a USAID-sponsored “democracy promotion” program that violated Cuban law.

Migration across Florida Strait rising

From last December 17th to January 5th of this year, 421 Cubans were intercepted by U.S. authorities in attempts to reach the United States, the AP reports. That figure is almost double the number of migrants intercepted in December of 2013.

#CubaNow noted this week that Senator Bob Menendez told a nationally-televised audience that the rise in migrants was stoked by President Obama’s reform announcement in December, suggesting that it raised a concern that the preference for Cubans coming to the U.S. would be repealed.

No such reference appeared in the President’s remarks, and U.S. officials deny that any changes will be made to the policy, which has been in place since 1995 as a revision to the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act. The recent renewal of diplomatic relations “does not affect immigration policies including wet foot/dry foot or the Cuban Adjustment Act — which only Congress can change,” according to a Coast Guard statement reported by NBC.


Cuban artist Tania Bruguera released

Tania Bruguera, a Cuban performance artist detained last week after organizing a “participatory performance” event in Havana’s Revolution Square, was released after being detained by Cuban police for a third time in two days, the New York Times reports. Several other dissidents were briefly detained or placed under temporary house arrest.

“The idea was to put microphones in a public plaza so Cubans can talk about these moments we are living through,” Bruguera told Business Insider.

According to the New York Times, Cuban authorities wanted to negotiate an alternate location for the performance; when no agreement was reached, Bruguera decided to carry on with the event without a required permit. She faces charges of public disorder and resisting police, and she will not be permitted to leave Cuba while charges are pending.

#CubaNow Director Ric Herrero responded to the arrests in a statement:

“Today’s detentions in Havana are a reminder that change won’t happen overnight in Cuba, and that it is Cuban voices that can most effect change in their country. The major policy change announced on December 17th, however, began the important process of taking away the Cuban government’s biggest excuse for its repressive practices. Their attempt to blame U.S. policy for today’s inexcusable actions only underscores why our failed half-century old policies needed to change.”

Infant mortality rate reaches record low

The 2014 infant mortality rate in Cuba was 4.2 per thousand — the lowest in the country’s history, Granma reports. The rate in Cuba reflects that of much of the developed world, and is lower than the mortality rate in the United States. This success is due in part to Cuban doctors’ heavy emphasis on preventative and prenatal care.

Cuba’s Capitolio will re-open

Cuba’s Capitol building, built in 1929 in the image of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, will be re-opened in March upon the completion of a restoration project led by Havana City Historian Eusebio Leal that began in 2013, the AP reports. After the 1959 revolution, Fidel Castro disbanded Cuba’s Congress and used the building to house the Cuban Academy of Sciences. This year, however, Cuba’s 600-member National Assembly will start using the building for its biannual meetings.


Juan Manuel Santos open to Colombia-FARC ceasefire

Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos has indicated that he would be open to the idea of a bilateral ceasefire with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), the AP reports. Peace talks between Colombia’s government and the FARC have been underway in Havana for over two years in an effort to end the decades-long conflict that has claimed over 200,000 lives.

In December, the FARC declared a unilateral ceasefire with the condition that Colombia’s Army not carry out attacks on FARC forces until a final peace deal is reached. President Santos rejected the conditions of the ceasefire, citing previous attempts by the FARC to use temporary truces to build up military power. Now, however, it appears President Santos is more willing to consider a truce.

The AP also reports that leaders of Colombia’s second largest rebel group, the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN), have signaled that they would consider starting peace negotiations with Colombia’s government similar to those currently being conducted with the FARC.

Developments in the peace talks are relevant to President Obama’s decision to reform Cuba policy comprehensively as he announced on December 17th. During his speech, he said:

“I’ve instructed Secretary Kerry to review Cuba’s designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism. This review will be guided by the facts and the law. Terrorism has changed in the last several decades. At a time when we are focused on threats from al Qaeda to ISIL, a nation that meets our conditions and renounces the use of terrorism should not face this sanction.”

Cuba was designated as a State Sponsor of Terrorism in 1982. In its policy justification, the Obama administration has idiosyncratically used the presence of the FARC in Cuba to maintain the listing, while also using the fact that Cuba is hosting and brokering the talks as an apparent counter-argument for doing so. This contradiction is likely to be resolved once the review the President announced is completed within the next six months.

Recommended Reading

Shifting Dynamics for Cuba’s Dissidents, The New York Times Editorial Board

The Times argues that the renewal of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the U.S. is a “watershed moment” for democracy activists in Cuba. “For decades, Latin American governments have coddled, or appeased, the Castro regime because confronting it would be interpreted as an endorsement of Washington’s harshly punitive policy toward the island. By changing that policy, Mr. Obama has removed that concern.”

They risked everything to open a door to Cuba. They were shunned for it., Tina Griego, The Washington Post

In 1977, 55 Cuban-Americans whose families had left Cuba after the 1959 revolution returned to the island in an effort to encourage rapprochement between Cuba and the United States. “In Cuba, they would come to be welcomed as the brave heart of the revolutionary movement among youth throughout the world. In the United States, they were called traitors, and one of their founders would be assassinated.”

The new normal, The Economist

The biggest impact of the Cuba-U.S. thaw could be regional: “The scene is set for a new realism in Latin America. As commodity prices tumble and economic growth stalls, the region needs open markets, trade and regional co-operation—including with the yanquis to the north. With his move on Cuba, Mr. Obama has opened the way for the sort of diplomatic engagement that Latin America rarely enjoyed during his first six years in office.”

What Cuba’s new investors can learn from Coca-Cola, Nicola Persico, Fortune

When Coca-Cola expanded to Myanmar in 2013, it took measures to ensure it was creating sustainable jobs, and it even financed a women’s education project and created new codes of business conduct for its partners. Those looking to invest in Cuba in the future should use Coca-Cola as a case study for entering once-isolated economies, Persico says.

A View from Havana on Cuban-U.S. Relations, Miriam Leiva, Huffington Post

Leiva provides a Cuban perspective on the new course charted for U.S.-Cuba diplomacy. “Awareness and empowerment have developed, and the interaction with Cuban-Americans and Americans visiting Cuba, and Cubans traveling to U.S., has played an important role. The years to come are full of challenges and threats in Cuba, but also of hope and opportunities.”

Recommended Viewing

Photo essay: The bizarre, brilliant, and useful inventions of Cuban DIY engineers, Travis Daub and Jenny Marder, PBS

Scarcity of resources has led many Cubans to improvise makeshift alternatives for household items with the few supplies they have. “Unfortunately, all of this creativity is motivated by profound poverty and desperation. For this reason is it hardly enjoyable for anyone involved,” says one “inventor.”

Slide Show: Next Year in Havana, Paul Reyes, The New York Times

“Actual prosperity is a long way off, but with an influx of American visitors spending money with fewer restrictions, it seems reasonable to imagine that the Cuban talent for improvisation will evolve beyond just having to make do, to seizing the opportunity at hand.”

Recommended Listening

Did Editorials Influence Obama’s Decision to Normalize Relations with Cuba?, Terry Gross, Fresh Air, NPR

Host Terry Gross interviews New York Times Editorial Board member Ernesto Londoño, who penned a series of editorials that many think played a part in the Obama Administration’s decision to ease travel and trade restrictions on Cuba.

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