Walls and Doors — A Good Week for Diplomacy

March 30, 2015

Last December, when President Obama announced he had reached an agreement with President Raúl Castro to restore diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba, you’d have thought it was a dark day for diplomacy given the reaction of some Senators on Capitol Hill.

“I think it stinks,” New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez said of the breakthrough, “It’s a reward that a totalitarian regime does not deserve.” He later added that “18 months of secret negotiations produced a bad deal, a bad deal for the Cuban people.”

Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Florida Senator Marco said “By conceding to the oppressors in the Castro regime, the president and his administration have let the Cuban people down.” He also called President Obama “the worst negotiator that we’ve had as President since at least Jimmy Carter, and maybe in the history of this country.”

Just a side note: It was thirty-eight years ago this week the U.S. and Cuba convened talks that led to the signing of provisional maritime boundary and fishing rights agreements. Although these pacts contributed to the peace that has prevailed in the Florida Strait ever since, we’re guessing Rubio never sent President Carter a card wishing him a happy anniversary.

Were they right? Are these really dark days for diplomacy? We can think of four things that happened this week that show they are not:

1) Although Rubio and Menendez fought the Obama Administration’s support for Cuba attending the 7th Summit of the Americas meeting in Panama next month, Cuban dissidents Manuel Cuesta Morúa, Guillermo Fariñas, and Berta Soler will be taking part in civil society events, the Miami Herald reported. Cuba is unhappy about them being there, but they will arrive alongside a contingent of civil society activists attending with Havana’s blessing. Perhaps all can watch Presidents Obama and Castro shake hands again.

2) Pedro Luis Pedroso Cuesta, deputy director of Cuba’s foreign ministry, announced Thursday that a delegation of Cuban diplomats will be in Washington next week for human rights talks with a U.S. team led by Tom Malinowski, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State. While next week’s meeting is to discuss a framework for “future human rights talks,” and both countries criticize each other for their respective human rights records, “observers say even the start of a dialogue is an indication of progress in the countries’ broader move to normalize relations,” the Associated Press reported.

3) Although not a product of U.S. diplomacy, negotiations between Cuba and the European Union are also continuing talks on human rights as part of an accelerated commitment to normalize relations between Brussels and Havana. John Caulfield, who served in Cuba as head of the U.S. Interests Section until last year, linked the parallel negotiations in human rights, telling the Associated Press, “The very fact, I think, that Cuba is in a formal process where they agreed to talk about human rights to the European Union and the United States makes it more difficult for them to do the heavy-handed stuff they’ve done in the past.”

4) This week, a delegation of U.S. diplomats sat down in Havana with Cuban counterparts to discuss increasing Internet connectivity and access to information for the Cuban people. In a symbol of just how much has changed in a relationship that was forged during the Cold War era of the Teletype machine, Conrad Tribble, a U.S. diplomat stationed in Havana, tweeted about the talks here.

Although Cuba, in much of our country’s political discourse, will get no credit for fulfilling its side of the diplomatic bargain struck last December, what transpired this week could not have happened without Cuba’s government holding up its end. Carlos Varela, the Cuban singer-songwriter, writes in “Muros y Puertas, “there are those who build walls there are those who open doors.” In this week’s diplomacy, the doors swung open in both directions.

In his essay, Rubio Truly Hates Diplomacy, Daniel Larison, a senior editor at The American Conservative, lit into Senator Rubio for his instant condemnation of President Obama’s new Cuba policy. Larison acknowledged that diplomacy was not guaranteed to succeed, but said “Rubio wants to deny the U.S. and Cuba the possibility that engagement offers in order to cling to a confrontational policy that has yielded nothing but bitterness and poverty.”

Rubio said President Obama’s diplomacy “let the Cuban people down.” But, Yoani Sanchez, who will be covering the Summit of the Americas in Panama as a journalist, begs to differ.

“The truth is that on December 17 — St. Lazarus Day — diplomacy, chance and even the venerated saint of miracles addressed the country’s wounds,” she wrote. “Nothing is resolved yet, and the whole process for the truce is precarious and slow, but on that December 17th the ceasefire arrived for millions of Cubans who had only known the trenches.”

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Cuba: On Drugs

March 20, 2015

On Wednesday, Cuba got the results of its annual drug test. It passed. If we had to guess, no one on the island was sweating out the wait for the 2015 edition of the U.S. State Department narcotics control strategy report. But several pro-sanctions hardliners had to be disappointed by the results.

As required under laws passed by the U.S. Congress, the State Department monitors the performance of countries around the world on their efforts to control illegal drugs and chemical precursors, as well as how they enforce laws and meet global standards on money laundering and financial crimes.

Countries with low marks get branded as “major illicit drug transit or illicit drug producing” or “major money laundering” countries, and risk losing certain forms of U.S. foreign aid. Low marks or high, many nations question why the United States, a wealthy market for illegal drugs, should judge the internal law enforcement policies of others. Cuba, which is effective at counter-narcotics enforcement, resents such reports as intrusions on its sovereignty, and pays little heed to the threat of being penalized, since it receives no government aid from the U.S.

We’re shining a light on the report now because its findings are relevant to the domestic debate in the United States on President Obama’s decision to seek the resumption of diplomatic relations. The report’s findings support the notion that reversing Cuba’s diplomatic isolation and increasing bilateral cooperation on issues like counter-narcotics is in both countries’ self-interest.

Volume One of the report makes clear that Cuba is a high achiever on narcotics control. It gets good grades on measures like domestic law enforcement, prevention, and education programs; for devoting its scarce resources to interdiction, and for its bilateral agreements on counterdrug cooperation and policing with dozens of other nations.

In Volume Two, which identifies the major money laundering countries of 2014, Cuba gets good grades on so many measures it is placed in the least worrisome category of “Other Countries/Jurisdictions Monitored,” with nations like close U.S. allies Sweden, Norway, and New Zealand. This means that Cuba earned higher marks than Canada, Chile, China, Saudi Arabia, Israel, the Vatican, and the United States itself.

In its country-specific report, the State Department makes special mention of Cuba’s cooperation with the U.S. Coast Guard Drug Interdiction Specialist at the U.S. Interests Section, the sharing of tactical intelligence about suspected traffickers with the U.S., and its demonstrated willingness to apprehend and turn over U.S. fugitives involved in drug cases.

These findings align with the views of Randy Beardsworth, a former Acting-Undersecretary for Homeland Security, who also served as a Director for Defense Policy on the National Security Council Staff for two administrations, and is a retired Coast Guard Captain.

In an email written to Cuba Central staff, Beardsworth said, “Over the past 15 years the strongest and most professional functional relationship the U.S. has had with Cuba has been between the U.S. Coast Guard and the Cuban TGF (Coast Guard) — and this relationship has been primarily based on maritime counter drug cooperation.”

Expanding diplomatic relations and opening embassies, in his view, offer the prospect of building on the relationship and expanding the effectiveness of both countries’ counter-narcotics strategy.

Beardsworth told us, “As the two countries normalize relations we will need both broader and deeper functional relationships in the counter drug arena. Neither country has a deep understanding of the other country’s agencies, laws, and processes. We need to learn how best to cooperate and we need to build on the trust and goodwill between the U.S. Coast Guard and the TGF. As a practical matter this means more functional liaisons and educational programs between relevant agencies.”

The Cubans are apparently ready to do this and more. Cuba has previously proposed intensifying the cooperation that now occurs on a case by case basis, by negotiating a formal agreement to fight drug trafficking. The Prensa Latina news agency reported that Cuba’s chief negotiator, Josefina Vidal, sees the diplomatic breakthrough giving new impetus to formal talks on this issue.

If diplomatic relations helps the U.S. and Cuba to expand cooperation and make more progress in their counter-narcotics programs, this will eliminate a familiar “drug of choice” talking point against President Obama’s policy. In just the last few months, hardliners have argued (here, here, and here) against diplomacy with Cuba, or removing it from the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism, for its alleged complicity with drug trafficking networks.

Of course, the State Department report demolishes such charges, and instead concludes that “enhanced communication and cooperation between Cuba and the United States… would likely lead to increased interdictions and disruptions of illegal drug trafficking.”

This is another good reason for full diplomatic relations, and could make the critics who are pressing so hard to derail the President’s diplomacy with Cuba vulnerable to the label “soft on drugs.”

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If Eight Polls Run Against You, You Run Against Conan

March 13, 2015

Since December 17, 2014, eight public opinion polls have been released that all show strong public support for President Obama’s decision to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba and his call to end the embargo.

That’s got to bother the hardliners who have devoted their careers to punishing Cuba with U.S. sanctions.

A year ago, when The Atlantic Council survey showed 56% of all Americans, and 63% of Floridians, in support of normalizing relations, it clearly got under the skin of Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (FL-25).

When Rep. Diaz-Balart interpreted the results for the New York Times, he called them “an absolute lie.”

In fact, the Atlantic Council’s findings that there is widespread support for a modern Cuba policy — across the country and in Rep. Diaz-Balart’s backyard — were beyond dispute.

Today, we’re sharing the results of the surveys released in the last ten weeks that all show huge national support for the President’s reforms.

In its December 17-21, 2014 survey, the Washington Post found 64% support and just 31% opposition for establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba.

CBS News reported 54% support, 28% disapproval, and 18% “don’t know” for reestablishing relations in its poll on December 22, 2014.

Pew Research found 63% support and 28% disapproval of reestablishing relations on January 11, 2015.

The Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll reported 60% approving and 30% disapproving restoring diplomatic ties with Cuba on January 17, 2015.

Florida Atlantic University in its January 2015 survey of Hispanic Attitudes found 73% of its respondents favoring and just 12% opposing diplomatic ties with Cuba.

The Associated Press found 45% approval, 15% disapproval, with 37% having no opinion, of the U.S. government restoring diplomatic ties in its survey conducted January 29-February 2, 2015.

The Gallup Poll reported that 59% favored and 30% opposed reestablishing relations in its survey conducted February 14-15, 2015.

This is to say nothing of the bipartisan majority, found in the Beyond the Beltway survey released this week, which sees diplomatic relations as a key part of advancing human rights. That poll reported that 64% of voters — including 51% of Republicans — favor ditching the embargo against thirty-six percent who favor keeping it in place.

Wow, eight polls in ten weeks — that’s not just a trend, it’s a tidal wave. So, where does that leave the hardliners now?

Frustrated, we’d guess. Rather than attacking public opinion, they’ve pointed the muzzles of their guns at a most unlikely target, Conan O’Brien.

After the broadcast of “Conan In Cuba” last week, which captured the late-night comedian’s drunken visit to the rum museum, dance lessons, his effort to learn the Clave, and his short-of-heroic attempt to master Spanish, a few critics went nutty.

One critic called the show an “80-minute infomercial for the Western hemisphere’s longest running and bloodiest dictatorship” and dismissed Conan as a “propagandist.” Another likened him to the “useful idiots,” a term used by the Soviets (hello, they went out of business in 1991) for those “who unwittingly promoted their greatness and turned a blind eye to their flaws.”

Of course, Orlando Luis Pardo (infamous for his “Let him Rot” comment about Alan Gross) suggested that Conan “Get a Castro’s rationing card and apply for Cuban citizenship, where you could never broadcast one of your shows!”

Given this unmoored response, you’d think Conan had hand-wrapped Top Secret information at the cigar factory and passed it to the enemy in a humidor.

On the other hand, what alternative do the hardliners have when the tide of public opinion is running so decidedly against them? They run against Conan. Good luck with that.

It seems fitting to close with a dog story, since Conan barked a lot when he was in Cuba.

During World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt brought his Scottish terrier, Fala, to meetings with Winston Churchill, and even let the dog tour defense plants on his own, a cheerful sight for a war-weary America.

During his 1944 reelection campaign, following a rumor he’d left the dog behind in the Aleutian Islands, FDR was attacked for allegedly spending $20 million to rescue Fala.

Now, that was an absolute lie.

Roosevelt defended Fala in a speech. “He half-jokingly declared,” says one account, “that his critics sullied the reputation of a defenseless dog just to distract Americans from more pressing issues facing the country. Addressing the attacks, FDR said, “of course, I don’t resent attacks, and my family doesn’t resent attacks, but Fala does resent them.”

Weighed against the massive public support for getting rid of our country’s failed Cuba policy, these red-baiting attacks on a red-haired comedian by members of the Cold War Commentariat really don’t amount to much.

So, we don’t resent them, and we hope Conan doesn’t either, although we’re not all that worried about him. As this footage shows, Conan is pretty good at defending himself.

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Breaking News: Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) Facing Federal Corruption Charges

March 6, 2015

Senator Bob Menendez, shown here on Twitter celebrating National Pancake Day earlier this week, has something a little more serious on his plate this afternoon.

CNN is reporting that Menendez, New Jersey’s senior Senator, and the former Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, will face federal criminal corruption charges for allegedly using his Senate office to promote the business interests of Dr. Salomon Melgen, a Florida ophthalmologist.

Under a headline reading, “Menendez Expected to Face Federal Corruption Charges,” the New York Times indicates that federal prosecutors are focused on gifts Mr. Menendez received from Dr. Melgen in exchange for official acts.

Charges could be filed within a matter of weeks.

Evidence of his problems surfaced in 2013 when Menendez had to pay back $58,000 for free trips to the Dominican Republic he’d taken on Melgen’s plane.  Later, there were charges of impropriety after the Senator defended Melgen against Medicare’s accusations that he had overbilled for services in his eye care practice, and helped Melgen who sought a port screening security contract in the Dominican Republic.

“In the past,” as the National Journal reported this afternoon, “Menendez has denied any wrongdoing.” On occasions, he has blamed Cuban intelligence agents for pushing the allegations against him, and called the Justice Department probe a part of their smear campaign, as The Daily News remembered today.

But, the New Jersey Advance reported last week, “a current aide and a former counsel” to Senator Menendez filed an appeal to a federal district court order that they testify before a grand jury looking into the Senator’s conduct.  This afternoon, a spokeswoman for Menendez said in a statement carried by the Washington Post, “we believe all of the Senator’s actions have been appropriate and lawful and the facts will ultimately confirm that.”

Senate seats in New Jersey are not without controversy.  On May 1, 1981, the late Senator Harrison “Pete” Williams was convicted on nine counts of bribery and conspiracy for promising to use his office to further a business venture, as the New York Times reported.

Two decades later, Senator Bob Torricelli, also a New Jersey Democrat, withdrew from his 2002 reelection campaign after being “severely admonished” by the Senate Ethics Committee for accepting gifts from a donor in exchange for having intervened on his behalf in overseas business deals (earlier, a yearlong Justice Department investigation ended without charges being filed).

Torricelli was the primary author of the 1992 Cuban Democracy Act, which codified and strengthened sanctions against Cuba, barred ships that dock in Cuba from landing at U.S. ports for six months, and prohibited foreign subsidiaries of U.S. companies from trading with Cuba.

Menendez has been a fierce critic of U.S. policy toward Cuba under President Obama.  In response to the deal struck between the two countries to resume diplomatic relations, he said Obama had “vindicated the brutal behavior of the Cuban government” and would “invite further belligerence” toward human rights and democracy advocates.”

Writing for the editorial page of New Jersey’s Star-Ledger newspaper, Tom Moran observed, “Menendez has been a thorn in President Obama’s side of late, opposing him on Iran and Cuba.  Now, it seems, he will be busy for a while defending his own neck.”

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