Obama’s Cuba Policy & the Taming of the Shrill

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.


U.S. and Cuba begin normalization talks

Cuba and the U.S. made historic progress toward normalizing relations in high-level talks that took place Wednesday and Thursday, Reuters reports. The two-day meeting marks the first steps toward normal diplomatic relations taken since President Obama announced last month that the U.S. would seek to restore ties with Cuba after over 50 years of estrangement and antagonism.

The U.S. delegation was led by Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere Roberta Jacobson. This was the first such visit by an official of Jacobson’s rank in 38 years. Jacobson said the conversation was “positive and productive,” but also pointed out that “profound differences” remain between the two sides. “We have to overcome more than 50 years of a relationship that was not based on confidence or trust.”

Her Cuban counterpart, Josefina Vidal, who is head of U.S. affairs for Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Relations, in turn “called for the U.S. to remove Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism,” the Latin America News Dispatch reported. “It would be difficult to explain that diplomatic ties were restored while Cuba continues, unjustly, on the list of state sponsors of terrorism,” said Vidal.

President Obama’s announcement of renewing ties with Cuba initiated a State Department review of Cuba’s designation as a State Sponsor of Terror. The review is set to be completed within the next five months.

The first session of negotiations, which took place Wednesday, focused on migration issues. During this session, the U.S. delegation was led by Jacobson’s deputy, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Alex Lee.

Cuba has long called on the U.S. to end migration policies known as “wet foot, dry foot,” which come from a 1996 amendment to the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act. This provision offers preferential immigration treatment to people fleeing Cuba, and has been denounced by the Cuban government as an inducement to human trafficking.

“Our government is completely committed to upholding the Cuban Adjustment Act (CAA) … the sets of migration-related policies that are colloquially known as wet foot/dry foot very much remain in effect,” Lee said on behalf of the U.S. delegation.

Vidal responded by saying that negotiators “believe on the Cuban side that since wet foot/dry foot is a policy, therefore it’s in the hands of the government and the executive branch to decide about the application of the law.”

According to Robert Muse, a D.C.-based lawyer with experience in U.S.-Cuba sanctions, “wet foot, dry foot” can be terminated by President Obama. “All it takes to end the present policy is a directive from the president to the attorney general ordering him or her to cease granting permanent residence to Cubans who enter the U.S. without visas,” he wrote last year in Americas Quarterly.

This week, the Miami-Dade County Commission voted unanimously to petition Congress to revise the CAA to close loopholes that allow criminals to travel to and from Cuba undetected.

On Thursday, the negotiations turned to the reestablishment of diplomacy more broadly, including the establishment of a U.S. embassy in Havana, cooperation on anti-narcotics efforts, emergency response in the Caribbean, telecommunications infrastructure, and public health.

There are conflicting reports on whether human rights issues were discussed. As the AP reports, “Jacobson said the U.S. had raised it in a morning meeting; Vidal said it had not come up. Gustavo Machin, Cuba’s deputy chief of North American affairs, later said the delegations spent time in an afternoon session discussing U.S. human rights problems.”

Jacobson met with a group of political dissidents for a breakfast meeting in Havana on Friday morning, the Washington Post reports. Meanwhile, Vidal told the Associated Press that Cuba has asked for an end to the U.S. practice of financially supporting dissidents. Ending that practice, Vidal said, would make Cuba’s government more willing to allow U.S. diplomats to travel throughout Cuba without restrictions.

The high-level talks took place just two days after a Congressional delegation led by U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy (VT) met with Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez to discuss trade, travel, and other aspects of the evolving U.S.-Cuba bilateral relationship.

“It was a first meeting. This is a process,” said Vidal at the conclusion of Thursday’s talks. The next round of talks is set to take place in Washington next month, according to a report by Bloomberg.

As the New York Times notes, Ms. Vidal was appointed to Cuba’s Communist Party central committee in 2011, which indicates she is both powerful now and can be expected to play an even larger role in Cuba’s government going forward.

President Obama calls for end to embargo in State of the Union address

In his penultimate State of the Union address, President Obama called on Congress to end the embargo against Cuba. “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,” he said. “This year, Congress should begin the work of ending the embargo,”

The President welcomed Alan Gross, jailed in Cuba five years ago for smuggling illegal communications equipment but released late last year as a part of a larger diplomatic rapprochement. Mr. Gross was invited by President Obama to attend the speech and sat directly behind First Lady Michelle Obama.

Senator Marco Rubio (FL) and House Speaker John Boehner (OH-8) also sought to convey a symbolic message about Cuba with the guests they invited to attend the speech. Rep. Boehner invited Cuban dissident Jorge Luis García Pérez, and Sen. Rubio invited Rosa Maria Payá, daughter of Oswaldo Payá, a Cuban democracy advocate who died in 2012 in a car crash that opponents of the government say was staged by Cuban authorities.

Most Cuban-American members of Congress, including Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-27), distanced themselves from Payá when he was alive, citing “grave concerns” about his democracy project, which sought to work with Cuba’s existing legal system rather than against it. After Payá’s death, however, Ros-Lehtinen and others began using Payá’s legacy as a part of their case to strengthen the U.S. embargo.

Rep. Kathy Castor (FL-14) invited Cuban-American businessman Jose Valiente, who supports normalizing relations with Cuba. “Cuban-born Jose Valiente epitomizes the evolving views towards Cuba and the leading role Tampa Bay is poised to take as more engagement and expanding business ties with Cuba are underway,” according to an article on Rep. Castro’s website.

Rep. Carlos Curbelo (FL-26), a Cuban American recently elected to his first term in Congress, gave the Republican Party’s official Spanish response to President Obama’s speech. In it, Curbelo called the Obama Administration’s move to renew diplomacy with Cuba an “unearned concession” to the government of President Raúl Castro.

Criticism of President Obama’s new Cuba policy was noticeably absent from the official English response, given by Sen. Joni Ernst. As Miami Herald politics reporter Mark Caputo wrote, “Ernst didn’t mention [Cuba] either – an interesting omission considering the broader Midwestern interest in increasing agricultural trade with the island (see Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan’s early votes on the issue).”

Cuba experts and business leaders call for end to embargo in letter to Obama

A bipartisan group of 78 policy experts and business leaders have sent an open letter to President Obama urging him “to work with Congress to update the legislative framework with regard to Cuba so that it, too, reflects 21st century realities.”

According to the Washington Examiner, the U.S. State Department circulated the letter prior to President Obama’s State of the Union speech in order to promote the President’s new Cuba policy.

The letter was signed by George P. Shultz, Secretary of State for President Ronald Reagan; Sandy Berger, former U.S. National Security Advisor to President Clinton; Strobe Talbott, former Secretary of State for President Bill Clinton; Michael Parmly, former Chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana under President George W. Bush; Carol Browner, former U.S. EPA Administrator; former Governors Bruce Babbitt (AZ), Chet Culver (IO), and Howard Dean (VT); former Members of Congress Tom Downey (NY) and Lee Hamilton (IN); a cross section of prominent Cuban Americans; and leaders of NGOs including Jon Cowan, President of the Third Way, and Sarah Stephens, Executive Director, Center for Democracy in the Americas.

“We may disagree on a number of issues, but we’ve found common ground for a simple reason; our fifty-four-year-old approach intended to promote human rights and democracy in Cuba has failed,” the letter says.

Members of Congress urge Obama to end policy of luring Cuban doctors away from posts

Representatives Rosa DeLauro (CT-3) and Barbara Lee (CA-13), along with 13 other Members of Congress, sent a letter to President Obama on Wednesday urging him to end the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program (CMPP).

The program, established in 2006 by the Department of Homeland Security and Department of State under President George W. Bush, makes it easier for Cuban doctors and medical professionals that are working abroad to defect to the United States. President Obama has the authority to put an end to the measure using his executive authority.

“This program exacerbates tensions between the U.S. and Cuba and undermines medical assistance from Cuba to poor countries,” the letter says. “We welcome the immigration of Cuban nationals to the U.S., but not through a program that impedes the delivery of healthcare to the poor and which does not appear to advance U.S. domestic or international interests.”

Last November, the New York Times wrote an editorial titled “A Cuban Brain Drain, Courtesy of the U.S.,” which also called for an end to the policy:

“The Cuban government has long regarded the medical defection program as a symbol of American duplicity. It undermines Cuba’s ability to respond to humanitarian crises and does nothing to make the government in Havana more open or democratic. As long as this incoherent policy is in place, establishing a healthier relationship between the two nations will be harder.”

Healthcare is a central part of Cuba’s foreign policy. There are nearly 50,000 Cuban health workers on missions in 66 countries worldwide, including in Ebola-stricken West Africa. Repealing the program would be consistent with the recent warming among U.S. policymakers toward the role of Cuban doctors around the world.

State Department list of approved imports from Cuba will be comprehensive

A senior State Department official told the Miami Herald on Friday that a list of items that can be imported by U.S. buyers from Cuban cuentapropistas, or small business owners, will cover a wide range of goods and services, including computer programming, construction, and professional translation services.

The idea, according to the source, is to “open the door as wide as possible, so that it is the Cuban government that will have to decide whether to remove barriers to entrepreneurs and, if they do not, that entrepreneurs know it’s because of an internal blockade.”

MasterCard to start allowing transactions in Cuba

Starting March 1, MasterCard will lift a block on credit and debit card transactions in Cuba, Bloomberg reports. U.S. citizens were previously not allowed to use credit or debit cards on the island, but last week’s amendments to the Department of Treasury’s Cuba Assets Control Regulations lifted the prohibition.


CIMEX to promote increased use of magnetic payment cards

Cuba’s state-run Import-Export Corporation (CIMEX) will install 506 new payment machines in an effort to increase the use of magnetic payment cards for everyday purchases in Cuba, AIN reports. Today there are less than 4,000 such machines on the island accepting payments in Cuba’s national peso (CUP), which is used by most Cubans, and in Cuba’s convertible peso (CUC), which is used by tourists and by Cubans with access to hard currency.

Cuban officials hope increased use of payment cards will boost commercial efficiency on the island, where cash transactions continue to be the most common form of payment. Last week, Cuba’s central bank announced that it would begin circulating CUP bills of higher denomination by the start of February.

Such changes are likely being made in preparation for the eventual unification of Cuba’s two currencies. The government announced last year that the Cuban convertible peso (CUC), introduced in 1994 by then-President Fidel Castro to attract hard currency in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, would gradually be eliminated from circulation, leaving the Cuban national peso (CUP) as Cuba’s sole currency. Since then, little visible progress has been made, and specific details about the process, such as a timeline for unification or information about future exchange rates, have not been made public.


Russian spy ship docks in Havana Bay

As negotiations between Cuba and the U.S. got underway in Havana, a Russian intelligence vessel docked in Havana Bay, the AFP reports. The Viktor Leonov CCB-175 spends most of its time patrolling international waters between the U.S. and Europe, but it also makes regular stops in Cuban ports.

The ship’s visit, according to Yahoo News, was scheduled before the U.S.-Cuba talks were set to take place. U.S. officials said the visit is nothing to be concerned about. “It’s not unprecedented. It’s not unusual. It’s not alarming,” said a U.S. defense official.

Mexico President signs extradition accord with Cuba

Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto has signed into law an extradition deal that was reached with Cuba and ratified by Mexico’s Senate late last year, Martí Noticias reports. The treaty will apply only for crimes that break laws held in both countries and for which the punishment is no less than one year of imprisonment. The deal does not apply to crimes considered by either party to be political in nature.

Finalization of the agreement comes as the U.S. and Cuba discuss issues such as extradition in the historic diplomatic talks taking place in Havana this week. Cuba’s lead negotiator Josefina Vidal has said that Cuba would not extradite a number of former Black Panthers and Black Liberation Army members that fled to Cuba in the 1970s, although a variety of fugitives who committed common crimes such as Medicare fraud can be returned.

Cuban health worker dies of Malaria in Sierra Leone

Reinaldo Villafranca, a Cuban medical professional who was fighting Ebola in Sierra Leone, has died of Malaria, the AP reports. Villafranca first fell ill in mid-January, but he tested negative for Ebola. Cuba has led the global response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa with the largest deployment of health professionals. Cuba has promised to send a total of 461 medical workers to join treatment and containment efforts.

Villafranca is only the second Cuban medical professional to die of malaria in West Africa and just the third to fall seriously ill. Jorge Juan Guerra Rodriguez succumbed to the illness last October in Guinea. Only one Cuban worker, Felix Baez, has contracted Ebola. Baez recovered fully after treatment in Switzerland and Cuba, and last week he returned to West Africa to re-join his colleagues and continue treating Ebola patients.

Recommended Reading

Cubans Euphoric Over the New Regulations, Yoani Sánchez, 14ymedio

A closer relationship between the U.S. and Cuba could bring better Internet access to Cubans, welcome news for independent journalists and dissident bloggers. “I am in favor of everything that benefits the ordinary Cuban citizen,” said one man interviewed by Sánchez. “The facilitation of travel, communication between civil society, here and there, between one people and the other, I am in favor of everything that improves the quality of life.”

CUBA/US: Catching a Glimpse of the Possible Future, Leonardo Padura, IPS

“We Cubans who live on the island have already felt a noticeable initial benefit from the announced accords,” writes Padura, an award-winning Cuban author. “We have felt how a political tension that we have lived in for too many years has begun to ease, and we can already feel it is possible to rebuild our relationship with a neighbour that is too powerful and too close, and relate to each other if not in a friendly way, then at least in a cordial, civilised manner.”

On Cuba, Expect Steady But Slow Progress on Both Sides, Ted Piccone, Brookings

Obama’s decision to “go big” with his announcement last December has given important momentum to efforts to bring Cuba and the U.S. closer together. However, Piccone warns that there are still a number of challenges to face. Those obstacles, Piccone says, will be tackled gradually as today’s excitement gives way to the “typical business of two sovereign neighbors” in a “process of constructive engagement.” Still, though, what we have now is “a whole lot better than exploding cigars and shooting down planes.”

Making Cuba Safe for Capitalism, Bloomberg Editorial Board

There are several ways the U.S. can push Cuba to modernize its economy. One of those ways, according to the editors of Bloomberg magazine, is to take Cuba off the State Sponsors of Terrorism list. The editors also argue that the U.S. should move to quickly settle existing trademark and property disputes with Cuba. “People deserve to be compensated, of course, but companies should recognize that their interests are better served by getting access to Cuba’s market.”

The U.S. Should Give Guantánamo Back to Cuba, Its Rightful Owner, Roque Planas, Huffington Post

As U.S. diplomats call on Cuba to show greater respect for human rights, a U.S. naval base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba holds 122 detainees, many of whom have not been charged with any crime. That’s more than the 114 political prisoners the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation says are being held by Cuba’s government. The base “undermines otherwise legitimate demands from U.S. policymakers for Cuba to respect human rights,” Planas says. “Obama should do more than shut it down. He should give the territory back to Cuba.”

Recommended Viewing

William LeoGrande on US-Cuba intrigues, from JFK to Obama, James Rosen, The Foxhole

Cuba expert and American University Professor William LeoGrande tells Foxhole host James Rosen about the history of back-channel negotiations between the U.S. and Cuba and offers his take on the renewal of diplomatic relations.

Policy will ‘support, empower’ Cuban people, Andrea Mitchell, MSNBC

Andrea Mitchell interviews Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson, who led the U.S. delegation in this week’s normalization talks in Havana.

Recommended Listening

When will Starbucks pop up all over Cuba? Don’t count on it, Joyce Hackel, PRI’s The World

The World host Marco Werman speaks with Jake Colvin of the National Foreign Trade Council. “What’s gonna matter at the end of the day is the reality on the ground in Cuba, the ability of Cubans to sustain foreign investments, for Cuba to pay for things it might want to trade for, and for the attitudes and policies of the Cuban government,” Colvin says.

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