To Cuba and the U.S. — Live Long and Negotiate

February 27, 2015

When the U.S. and Cuba met in Washington today for their second round of talks on reestablishing diplomatic relations, we were all thinking about Leonard Nimoy. The iconic actor who played Spock in the Star Trek television and movie franchise died today at age 83.

In Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Spock explains why Captain Kirk was going to negotiate with the Klingons:

Captain Spock: Last month, at the behest of the Vulcan ambassador, I opened a dialogue with Gorkon, Klingon chancellor of the High Council. He proposes to begin negotiations at once.

Admiral Cartwright: Negotiations for what?

Captain Spock: The dismantling of our star bases and outposts along the Neutral Zone, an end to nearly 70 years of unremitting hostility which the Klingons can no longer afford.

If centuries into an imagined future, adversaries will still be sitting down to talk about ending their hostilities, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that Cuba and the U.S. ended their second round of negotiations without an agreement on opening embassies or the other measures required for reconnecting our severed diplomatic relations.

There is, after all, a long list of issues dividing the two governments, and not a lot of trust after decades of hostilities and suspect motives bringing them together.

Even after the exceptional elegance of the December 17th announcement — the simultaneous addresses by Presidents Obama and Castro, the release of prisoners, even the convergence of Jewish, Catholic, and Santeria holidays — both countries have doubts.

Cuba is yet to be convinced that President Obama’s diplomatic outreach constitutes more than a soft power expression of our historic regime change policy. The United States, for its part, sees Cuba as unwilling to make concessions to achieve a deal, which the Cuban government views as an intrusion on its national sovereignty.

The agenda laid out in advance of the second round of talks, as reported by the Washington Post, was to be “narrowly focused on opening embassies and on putting in place a framework for separate bilateral talks on various issues, including human rights and a new civil aviation agreement that will allow commercial air traffic between the two countries.” But, this agenda couldn’t be read at face value.

The real sticking point is Cuba’s false and flawed designation as a nation that is a state sponsor of terrorism. As the New York Times reported, “Cuban officials say they cannot envision opening a formal embassy in the United States while their country remains on the terror list.”

Cuba’s terror list designation has stopped U.S. banks from providing commercial banking services to its Interests Section and consulates. As a practical matter, Cuban officials say that they cannot operate an embassy without a checking account.

In fact, the terrorist list is a drag on all of Cuba’s dealings in the global economy and a regulatory risk to every financial institution processing its transactions.

The State Department, in trying to keep the talks on track to smooth President Obama’s sailing into the upcoming Summit of the Americas gathering, offered a somewhat fanciful way out for the negotiators. As a senior State Department Official told reporters this week “It would be very easy to restore diplomatic relations if they would not link those two things.”

Paradoxically, the hardliners who oppose restoring relations with Cuba are also the biggest supporters of keeping the debate focused on the State Sponsors of Terrorism List, which several tried to do in comments orchestrated this week.

For example, Senator Bob Menendez, former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, sent a stern and seriously-worded letter to Secretary Kerry admonishing the administration not to remove Cuba from the list until Joanna Chesimard, a U.S. fugitive granted political asylum in Cuba, is returned to the U.S. (something Cuba has promised not to do).

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, at a hearing in the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, called Cuba “a clear and present danger to the United States,” and demanded that the U.S. keep Cuba on the State Sponsors list.

At the same time, the U.S. has its own list of issues — ending travel restrictions on our diplomats, removing the cordon of Cuban police who surround our Interest Section in Havana, expanding the limits on our staff and the like — it wants to see resolved, too.

This afternoon, the talks ended neither in breakthrough nor breakdown but with claims of progress and promises for more discussions at an unspecified date. Reuters reported, however, that Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson said, “I do think we can get this done in time for the Summit of the Americas.”

When asked to explain why Captain Kirk was sent by the Federation to negotiate with its worst enemy, the Klingons, Spock quotes what he calls an old Vulcan proverb: “Only Nixon could go to China.”

To make a deal before going to Panama in April, both sides are going to have to concede something — and at the highest levels.

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It’s time to throw mud and misunderstanding at U.S. travelers to Cuba

February 20, 2015

As more high-profile delegations from the U.S. Congress and the business community visit Cuba, critics of President Obama’s Cuba opening are ramping up their anti-travel campaign. Those who are doing the work and making the trips know exactly what the hardliner’s intentions are.

This weekend in Regla, an Afro-Cuban community outside Havana, we had a conversation with Alexey Rodriguez and Mágia Lopez, two renowned hip-hop artists, and three Members of the U.S. Senate who had come with us to get a better understanding of Cuba.

Engaging with the Senators in his living room, Alexey said that the value of these exchanges “is that it helps us find a Cuba inside we didn’t know was there.” The journeys by outsiders, especially Americans, bring ideas and perspectives that help sharpen his understanding of what is missing from his life in Cuba and what he can do to fill it in.

Alexey and Mágia use their recordings and concerts to evoke discussions in Cuba about racism in areas like policing, or in the writing of Cuba’s history where acts of violence against Afro-Cubans are unacknowledged, or contributions by them are airbrushed out.

If you didn’t know that the founders of Obsesion, like other artists in Cuba, push the frontiers of expression through their music, despite Cuban restrictions which are real, we’re not surprised. The folks who oppose travel don’t want Americans seeing that part of Cuba for themselves.

On our trip, we and Senators McCaskill, Klobuchar, and Warner had honest and direct exchanges with officials from Cuba’s foreign ministry. But we didn’t stop there. We always try to triangulate the Cuban reality; so, over the weekend, we also talked to leaders of the Jewish community and the Catholic Archdiocese, met Cubans in their homes, had exchanges with small business owners who are earning their living independent of the Cuban state, and got exposed to the thinking of people who are trying to change how they live and work in the Cuban system acting from within.

These conversations are not just essential, powerful really, for their own sake. They also expose as myth the notion perpetuated by hardline supporters of the status quo, that Cuba can be neatly divided between supporters of the communist state and political dissidents, and that no other Cubans or Cuban perspectives exist.

We have met Cuban dissidents on the island and here in the United States. We know many to be good, decent, and brave people. We also know that Cuba’s government reacts strongly to those Americans who see dissidents when they visit.

We also know that dissidents are nearly anonymous on the island, and that none of them are able to speak for all Cubans. In a nation as diverse and complicated as theirs, no one could.

And yet, those who want to keep using American sanctions to squeeze Cuba are perpetuating the myth that only political dissidents have the standing to speak for Cubans in an effort to discredit those who visit Cuba and reach beyond them to a broader community of witnesses to the Cuban reality.

Just as we got home, there was a poignant and ultimately sad story about the organization of Cuban political dissidents known as The Ladies in White. They were formed by the wives and family member of dissidents rounded up in 2003. A video had just been released, as the Miami Herald reported, showing a large group of Ladies in White members booing Alejandrina García de la Riva, co-founder of the group, and screaming ‘Down with traitors!’ for disagreeing with the group’s direction under the leadership of Berta Soler.

Upon seeing the video, sixteen original members of the group likened de la Riva’s treatment to an “act of repudiation typical of communist behavior” and called upon Soler to step down. The Miami Herald’s columnist, Fabiola Santiago, said the group appeared to be disintegrating, which she and others blame, in part, on financial support The Ladies in White receive under regime change programs underwritten by the U.S. government.

This is one risk that comes when Washington decides who ought to be cast in the roles of representing the real Cuba and pays people to play the part. Real Cubans are visible all over the island. You only have to go there to find them without being distracted by the outsiders shouting from the sidelines who hope you don’t.

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Valentine’s Day Edition: (Almost) Everyone “HEARTS” Reforms

February 13, 2015

Two big changes have taken place since President Obama decided to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba and reduce restrictions on the right of Americans to travel and trade with Cuba.

In just the last few weeks, the forces of reform have gotten bolder and bigger, while the opponents are looking smaller by comparison and, if we say so ourselves, considerably more weird (really).

In the U.S. Congress, legislation was introduced this week by Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota to repeal the trade embargo against Cuba — leaving human rights provisions of the law intact — with bipartisan support.

Organizations like the National Farmers Union, trade associations for farm commodities, leaders in the agriculture industry, and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack are all supporting efforts to lift the embargo and boost the sale of food to Cuba, a position warmly supported by U.S. farmers.

Governors, including Jay Nixon of Missouri and Andrew Cuomo of New York, and state businesses are lining up for trips to investigate business opportunities on the island. On behalf of Empire State citizens, including more than 74,000 Cuban Americans, Cuomo called Cuba “America’s newest economic partner,” and said “let us develop the relationship, let us open up the markets and let us get opportunities for New York companies,” in his State of the State Address.

Courage points go to the New Jersey business leaders who will visit Cuba in April despite opposition from their state’s senior Senator Bob Menendez, who turned up his nose at the Obama reform breakthrough, saying “I think it stinks.”

Businesses like Netflix and JetBlue are taking advantage of the opening, which in turn benefits Cubans by offering new sources of income, contact with Americans, and profits for small businesses.

The six public opinion surveys we’ve covered since the December 17th announcement – by the Miami Herald, the Washington Post, CBS News, Pew Research, the Wall Street Journal/NBC News, and the Associated Press — show strong support nationally and among Cuban Americans for diplomatic recognition and, importantly, lifting the embargo itself.

This is great momentum. As we report below, the enthusiasm for the policy — and the prospects for what normal relations could bring — is shared by Cubans, especially Cuban youth, who are joyful about the changes and are carrying a torch of hope for a better future.

But not everyone has sent off flowers or boxes of candy to the White House. In fact, there are two Members of Congress who replaced their Valentine’s Day card to the President with a letter bursting with “dismay and outrage”!

What made Reps. Bob Goodlatte and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen so mad? Was it the upsurge in travel? The new delegations looking for business? Are they dismayed and outraged because some Cubans could have access to “House of Cards” when the thirteen episodes of Season Three become available on February 27th?

No.

It is this vexing question –“Why Did Administration Help Cuban Spy Artificially Inseminate Wife?” — to which Mr. Goodlatte, the Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and Ms. Ros-Lehtinen, Chairwoman emeritus of the Foreign Affairs Committee, are demanding answers.

They refer to one of the lovelier sidebars of the story about what had happened while the deal for diplomatic relations was negotiated in secrecy over 18-months; or, as one newspaper headlined it, “How artificial insemination conceived a new era in US-Cuba relations.”

This decision by the U.S. government to give Adriana Perez, wife of convicted spy Gerardo Hernandez, a chance to have a child while she waited for her long-imprisoned husband to come home, boosted confidence in the diplomacy that ultimately yielded freedom for a CIA asset, 53 Cuban political prisoners, and Alan Gross.

As if it was timed to coincide with Valentine’s Day, their letter to Federal Bureau of Prisons Director Charles Samuels, Jr. asks: What statute of regulation authorizes the U.S. government to facilitate an artificial insemination in this manner? They ask who submitted the request and who approved it? They ask if there were precedent for “this sort of arrangement?” Who paid for it? And – ewwww – “To where was the specimen sent and who delivered it?”

In addition to proving these guys are no fun, and against the backdrop of meaningful evidence that the momentum behind Cuba policy reform is growing, it speaks volumes that these two hardliners had nothing more urgent in mind than coming out against an intended pregnancy by a woman in Cuba who just wanted to have a family.

While serious issues around human rights and much more are yet to be resolved, if the opponents of normalization have been reduced to asking, “What’s Love Got To Do With It?” you’d have to say, we reformers are on a roll.

Besos Y Abrazos.

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Obama’s Policy Reforms: The Congressional Counteract Begins

February 6, 2015

Opponents of President Obama’s diplomatic opening with Cuba offered a somewhat exotic argument in congressional hearings they staged this week.

They said U.S. diplomats engaged in the secret negotiations should have consulted Cuban dissidents who support U.S. sanctions before the U.S. and Cuba agreed to a process for removing them. In other words, give a minority of Cuban citizens veto power over a change in U.S. policy we already knew they didn’t want and wouldn’t like. [It doesn’t take a Freudian scholar to suggest the legislators wanted to be consulted themselves, but that’s a discussion for another day.]

Senator Marco Rubio explored this concept with a panel of dissidents who had come to Washington to testify at the hearings he called to denounce the new U.S.-Cuba policy.

First, he asked if “all four of you agree that it would be a mistake to move forward on these policies without direct consultation and step-by-step partnership with civil society and the democratic opposition on the island?”

After a puzzled silence, Miriam Leiva, a co-founder of the Ladies in White, disagreed and responded by asking:

“If I understand you, it’s that the American government has to ask or talk with us for each step it takes. Is that what you mean?”

RUBIO: No, my question is, would it be a mistake to move forward on changes with — with — with policy towards Cuba without direct and ongoing consultation with civil society and the democratic opposition on the island?

Unpersuaded, Ms. Leiva responded, “I still see it the same way.”

He tried a similar approach with Berta Soler, the current leader of the Ladies in White.

RUBIO: My final question, Ms. Soler, you’ve met President Obama before, correct?

SOLER (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): That’s correct.

RUBIO: And I believe it was in November of 2013 or 20…

SOLER (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Yes, correct.

RUBIO: At that time, did President Obama indicate to you that if any changes — policy towards Cuba would first be consulted with groups like yourselves? Like the Ladies in White?

SOLER (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): No, that – that’s not really the way it was. I’m actually just another woman, another Cuban woman. There’s no reason for a government to count on me for any type of opinions and things like that.

Oh snap.

Ms. Soler’s answer — no, it didn’t happen that way — was not the response Senator Rubio was looking for. But the advice that followed would be well-taken for someone considering a run for the presidency.

At another juncture, Mr. Rubio asked the panel if they all supported a continuation of the Helms-Burton program that gives financial assistance to dissidents in Cuba, some of whom benefit from U.S. support and still denounce the Obama policy.

To his apparent surprise, two of the witnesses — Miriam Leiva and Rosa María Paya — didn’t agree with him on that question either.

LEIVA: The problem is that a great budget has been destined to this goals and most of them, most of the money, hasn’t gone directly to the — to the opposition and the problem is, again, that the Cuban government says that we are mercenaries, we are paid by the American imperialists or the American government and we have been taken to prison because of that.

PAYA: Yeah, I think that if the government of the United States were to assess all the horrific rules of the Cuban government, that’s not going to be a good for our people.

The fact that these programs backfire isn’t news to Cuban dissidents (or, for that matter, Alan Gross).

There were other excursions into humor by the curiously un-self-aware Senators.

For example, while some of the Committee members were on the Senate floor voting, Senator Bob Menendez expressed his regret “that so many of our colleagues can’t be here because this is the part of Cuba that members need to hear,” a strange comment from someone who opposes travel to Cuba by Senators — and all other Americans — where they could hear from a cross-section of Cubans directly.

Then, there was Rubio’s unintended salute to the Obama policy, who closed the hearing by saying: “If there’s a silver lining in all this it is that for the first time, certainly in my time in the Senate, and probably in a decade, when something is going on in Cuba now, a human rights abuse, any sort of outrage, it now is news in the United States.”

We can laugh at Senators’ mistakes, and we do. But, despite increasing evidence that the American public supports the reforms, there’s no assurance the Congress will protect or build on them. What opponents are doing is pretending that Cuba can be divided into supporters of the Cuban government (“the commies”) and a monolithic bloc of Cuban dissidents who want the current policy to remain in place to avoid rewarding conditions that violate their rights – as if no one else in Cuba exists.

In fact, Cuba’s dissidents are divided. They have little support and are largely unknown in Cuba, but in the U.S. they are presented as the only ones who should determine Cuba’s future. Thanks to Cold War myopia and the U.S. travel ban, most Americans, many journalists, and plenty of undecided Members of Congress have no idea that there are people throughout Cuba working within the system and looking forward to the time when reduced hostilities between their country and the U.S. makes their lives better.

This battle is not yet over.

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