Obama’s Policy Reforms: The Congressional Counteract Begins

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.

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

Congressional Counterattack against new Cuba policy

In hearings chaired by hardline supporters of U.S. sanctions against Cuba, separate Senate and House panels commenced a coordinated counterattack against President Obama’s Cuba policy reforms, grilling two administration witnesses and highlighting the testimony of handpicked members of the political opposition, one of whom called the decision to resume relations “a betrayal.”

Explaining his “direct opposition” to the changes announced in December, Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee Chairman Marco Rubio told Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere Roberta Jacobson and Assistant Secretary Tom Malinowski, the Department’s senior human rights official, the reforms “will not be effective” in bringing change to Cuba, and blamed the administration for failing to consult with “pro-democracy groups” on the island before reaching the breakthrough agreement with Cuba’s government.

Describing the current policy as a failure, Assistant Secretary Jacobson defended the shift saying “Our previous approach to relations with Cuba over a half-century, though rooted in the best of intentions, failed to empower the Cuban people and isolated us from our democratic partners in the region and around the world.”

In his comments, Senator Bob Menendez repeatedly asserted the U.S. had failed “to secure any concessions from the Castro regime,” but Assistant Secretary Malinowski tried to correct the record saying, “I trust we all agree that the most immediate result of this new policy, the release of 53 activists who are now back with their families, able to continue their brave work, is a good thing.”

In addition to the prisoner release, Cuba swapped spies with the United States, freed Alan Gross, agreed to intensify its engagement with international agencies focused on human rights, and committed to increasing access by Cubans to the Internet. Assistant Secretary Malinowski also testified that detentions of dissidents by Cuba’s government declined in January, though it was too early to consider that a trend.

In the hearing convened by the House Foreign Affairs Committee, New Jersey Representative Chris Smith said the Obama administration, “in its haste to achieve a breakthrough in Cuba, missed an opportunity to better conditions on the island and to hold the Castro regime to certain basic human rights standards in exchange for normalizing relations,” according to Local10.com news.

It was in testimony at House Foreign Affairs that former political prisoner Jorge Garcia Perez Antúnez called the accord negotiated by President Obama “a betrayal of the aspiration for the freedom of the Cuban people” and said “They (the reforms) are unacceptable for us.”

Affirming his perspective, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said of Cuba’s dissidents, “The administration is turning its back on them,” the Sun-Sentinel reported.

That viewpoint – that a monolithic dissident bloc opposes the Obama reforms – was contradicted in testimony by other opponents of Cuba’s government invited to testify at the Senate hearings by Ranking Democrat Barbara Boxer. Miriam Leiva, a dissident who co-founded the Damas de Blanco, formed to support government opponents sent to prison with stiff sentences after a round in March 2003, testified the new policy offered “a unique opportunity to assist the Cuban people and it must not be wasted.”

In his statement, Manuel Cuesta Morúa, an historian and democratic activist, also offered his endorsement:

“I do not believe that the change in U.S. policy will bring us freedom, which would be the best outcome. The freedom of Cuba is exclusively a matter for Cubans. But believe me, that new policy will give us better options for us to obtain it by ourselves.”

During the hearing, Senator Barbara Boxer responded to Chairman Rubio by saying the U.S. “has spent the past few decades pursuing a policy that hasn’t worked.” Meanwhile, Rep. Karen Bass told her colleagues in the House, “You just can’t change people and governments who you refuse to engage with.”

With the Obama Administration’s reforms under challenge in House and Senate Committees, legislation easing restrictions on trade with Cuba is likely be introduced by the end of March, Reuters reports.

Normalization talks will move forward

U.S. diplomats are pressing Cuba to restore diplomatic ties and open embassies in both countries’ capitals before the Summit of the Americas takes place in Panama in April, Reuters reports. But, the desire to complete these steps is running up against priorities brought to the negotiating table by Cuba.

Josefina Vidal, the senior diplomat for U.S. relations in Cuba’s Foreign Ministry and Cuba’s chief negotiator for the bilateral talks, said in an interview with state media on Monday that the U.S. would need to curtail its support of political dissidents if the two sides are to reach an agreement on opening embassies.

Under questioning by Senator Rubio at this week’s hearing, U.S. negotiator Roberta Jacobson said in response, “I can’t imagine that we would go to the next stage of our diplomatic relationship with an agreement not to see democracy activists,” Reuters reported.

This is just one difference, albeit a significant one, between the parties that could stop the U.S. from realizing its timetable.

Cuban negotiators have also pushed the U.S. to remove Cuba from the State Department’s State Sponsors of Terrorism list. Cuba’s placement on the list is currently under review by the State Department and is expected to be completed within the next five months.

The U.S. has said that Cuba must grant U.S. diplomats greater freedom to travel and better access to members of Cuban civil society.

In a meeting with Foreign Ministers from Canada and Mexico, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry expressed “enormous interest” in growing the U.S.-Cuba diplomatic relationship. “This is an effort we believe offers the best opportunity for the people of Cuba to improve their lives and to take part in the choices about their lives,” Kerry said.

Poll shows U.S. citizens support end to embargo

A poll conducted by the AP shows that 60 percent of people in the U.S. support lifting the embargo against Cuba. Only 35 percent of respondents said the embargo should remain intact. Half of the Republicans surveyed supported ending the embargo.

The Obama Administration’s changes to Cuba policy have 45 percent approval, with only a 15 percent disapproval rate. Most in the U.S., however, are not familiar with the issue — about half of those surveyed said they were not following the developments.

A poll conducted by the Wall Street Journal in January yielded similar results — 60% of respondents said they approved of the Obama Administration’s move to restore diplomatic ties with Cuba. In that poll, even 41% of Republicans expressed their support.

MLB changes signing rules for Cuban baseball players

Major League Baseball is now allowing Cuban baseball players to sign with major league teams without having to apply for a license from the Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Asset Control, Yahoo Sports reports. Players now only need to submit an affidavit to the MLB affirming that they are third-country residents with no intention of returning to Cuba and with no connection to Cuba’s government or Communist party.

Cuba’s baseball talent drain is not a new problem. Dozens of Cuban stars — including Yasiel Puig, who signed a $42 million contract with the LA Dodgers in 2012, and José Abreu, who signed a $68 million deal with the Chicago White Sox in 2013 — have left the island in the past decade seeking lucrative contracts in the United States. This week, according to the AP, two Cuban players defected while playing in Puerto Rico at the Caribbean Series, a baseball tournament held in the region annually.

The rule change could make the process of joining a major league team easier for Cuban players who manage to leave the island. However, the larger issue of human trafficking associated with those players is still unresolved. An MLB rule requires players residing in the U.S. to enter an amateur draft, which significantly lessens the value of the player’s contract because they are not able to negotiate directly with multiple teams.

For that reason, most Cuban players seek to establish residency in a third country and then register with the MLB as a free agent, a status from which many Cuban stars have negotiated multi-million dollar contracts. This process has provided opportunities for a host of unsavory characters who offer to smuggle the player off the island for a share of their future contract.

IN CUBA

Pictures of Fidel Castro published first since last summer

Pictures of a meeting between Cuba’s Student Union leader Randy Perdomo Garcia and Cuba’s former leader Fidel Castro were published in Granma this week. The photos are the first of the retired leader released since last August, when several images of him in a meeting with Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro appeared in state media.

Former president Castro has not been seen in public in over a year. Last week, he penned a column in Granma that silenced rumors of his death and voiced tepid approval of the recent developments in U.S.-Cuba relations.

In the pictures released this week, Castro is seen discussing a newspaper article from last December announcing the return of three Cuban intelligence agents who had been in prison in the U.S. for over fifteen years.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Medical brigade fighting Ebola nominated for Nobel Prize

The brigade of over 250 Cuban medical workers assisting international efforts to contain the Ebola epidemic that is believed to have killed over 9,000 people in West Africa has been nominated for a Nobel Prize, the Latin American Herald Tribune reports.

Cuba was one of the first countries to respond to the WHO’s call for increased medical personnel in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. The island nation’s contribution has been the largest to date, an effort that has drawn praise from international figures like Secretary Kerry and WHO Director-General Margaret Chan.

Recommended Reading

Rubio on wrong side of Cuba policy changes, Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board

The Tampa Bay times writes in support of the ongoing efforts to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba and warns that those who oppose the policy changes are working against the best interest of the United States. “[Senator] Rubio is out of touch with the public and on the wrong side of history,” the Editorial Board writes. “His views hurt the cause of democracy in Cuba and the interests of Floridians.”

End the Cuban travel ban, New Jersey Star-Ledger Editorial Board

There is growing support in New Jersey for freedom to travel to Cuba, which could put Cuban-American Sen. Bob Menendez and Rep. Albio Sires at odds with their Garden State constituencies. “It is a sensible move to dismantle a Cold War relic, a policy that has survived the Soviet Union,” the writers argue. As for Sen. Menendez, “[His] passion for his family’s native country seems to have blinded him to the practical realities on the ground.”

Lift the Cuba Travel Ban Already, Bloomberg Editorial Board

The Bloomberg Editorial Board joins the chorus calling for an end to restrictions on U.S. citizens who want to travel to Cuba. Bipartisan bills have been introduced in the House and Senate to do so, and polls show a majority of U.S. citizens would support such a measure. “Every day the U.S. embargo remains in place, it empowers the regime,” the editorial says. “Now is exactly the time when ordinary Cubans could benefit from a wider exchange of views.”

Commentary: Our New Relationship With Cuba, Carol Browner, Roll Call

Ms. Browner, who served as Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency from 1993 to 2001 and traveled to Cuba with CDA in 2013, writes, “Cuba has irreplaceable natural resources and habitats unique to the Caribbean and treasured globally. The decisions they make today about their energy future need to account for these resources and preserving them for the future.”

Obama Talked, Did Congress Listen?, Dalia González Delgado, Huffington Post

In his State of the Union speech in January, President Obama called on Congress to end the embargo against Cuba. Cuban journalist Dalia González urges Cuban-American members of Congress to consider the president’s request. “The Cuban-American lobby is the only significant lobby against normal relations between its native country and the United States. This is senseless.”

Hollywood and Havana inch closer with the new Cuba regulations, Christine Armario, Associated Press

Now that the Department of Treasury has issued general licenses for approved travel to Cuba, documentary filmmakers no longer need to go through the painfully bureaucratic process of getting permission to film on the island. That, on top of better access to U.S. banking services and improved Internet infrastructure, could mean U.S. filmmakers will look to carry out more projects in Cuba.

As tensions ease between U.S. and Cuba, MMA promoters see the island as the next frontier, Soni Sangha, Fox News Latino

Cuba is home to a wealth of boxing and wrestling talent. Now that restrictions on travel for athletic events have been significantly loosened, mixed martial arts promoters are looking toward the island as a potential new audience in a region where MMA is growing rapidly.

Recommended Viewing

AP PHOTOS: Cuban mother becomes flower entrepreneur, Associated Press

Yaima Gonzalez joined Cuba’s growing class of cuentapropistas — or self-employed workers — three years ago. Her flower business earns her about $28 per day — $8 more than the average Cuban earns in a month.

This Photographer’s Images Beautifully Capture Everyday Life In Cuba, The Huffington Post

David LaFevor, a photographer and professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, took a series of photos in Cuba ranging from 2006 to 2014 as part of a project called “Cuba: Histories of the Present.”

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