Hardliners Offer Concessions on Cuba — Concessions to Reality

April 24, 2015

This week, we want to tell you a story about Rep. Ros-Lehtinen’s sudden about-face on President Obama’s decision to drop Cuba from the state sponsors of terror list.

It’s a little “in the weeds,” but it dramatizes how much the debate on Cuba has changed since we learned that Presidents Obama and Castro agreed to restore diplomatic relations.

We begin on January 8 of this year when Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-27) introduced H.R. 204, the North Korea Sanctions and Diplomatic Non-recognition Act of 2015, to reverse a decision taken by the Bush administration to drop North Korea from the state sponsors list.

To accomplish this result, she wrote legislation which says in part, “Notwithstanding the decision by the Secretary of State on October 11, 2008,” to remove North Korea from the list, Congress was putting them back on the list and re-imposing the sanctions because “the Government of North Korea is a state sponsor of terrorism.”

When she introduced the legislation, no one questioned if Rep. Ros-Lehtinen had the authority to propose it. In fact, the Congressional Record published this definitive statement: “Congress has the power to enact this legislation pursuant to the following: Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution.”

If Rep. Ros-Lehtinen had the power to stick North Korea back on the terror list in January, what could possibly stop her from sticking it to President Obama in April with similar legislation once he decided to remove Cuba from the terror list?

She had ample advanced warning to write the Cuba version of this bill. It was 128 days ago that President Obama ordered a State Department review of Cuba’s terror list designation.

On April 7, when the State Department recommended that Cuba be dropped from the list, Rep. Ros-Lehtinen called out the President for “ignoring the Castro brothers continued policies in support of terrorism by providing safe haven to foreign terrorist organizations and repeated violations of international sanctions.”

Then, on April 14, when the President made his finding, Rep. Ros-Lehtinen released a statement condemning the administration for “rushing to embrace two decrepit tyrants in their twilight,” and concluded, “President Obama’s decision to remove Cuba from the State Sponsor of Terror list is based on politics and not facts.”

It sounded to us that she was spoiling for a fight. That was until John Hudson left us gob smacked with this eye-popping breaking news report: Congress won’t block Obama from Delisting Cuba on Terror List.

Wait! Is that true? What will Rep. Ros-Lehtinen say about that?

“We can’t undo it,” she told Foreign Policy on Wednesday. “We just got the word from the parliamentarian: It’s a no-go.”

Thinking there must be some mistake, we turned to the Miami Herald, her hometown newspaper; what did she tell them?

“She changed course.” She changed course?

This is what the Herald reported: “Legally, Ros-Lehtinen said, Congress can’t prevent the White House from taking Cuba off the list because not all the statutes that govern designation of a country as a state sponsor of terrorism provide a way for Congress to block a de-listing.”

This is very hard to understand. In January, her “Reinstate North Korea as a terror state” bill had the Constitution on her side. In April, she collects 35 co-sponsors on her “remake Cuba a terror-supporting state” bill, but gets a surprise ruling from the House parliamentarian and “changes course”?

What is this new course? Cuba gets off the terror list without a fight, but she plans to file “broader legislation” that will protect U.S. national security and maintain our advocacy for human rights on the island.

What explains the Congresswoman’s about-face? Was it the parliamentarian or was it the polls? CNN reported today that 59% of Americans approve of the decision to remove Cuba from the terror list, and just 38% disapprove. Maybe it was just politics.

As Christopher Sabatini, a scholar of United States-Cuba relations at Columbia University, told the New York Times, “This was the hard-liners’ white flag. They had been planning to present a piece of legislation in the allotted 45 days to overturn the removal of Cuba from the list, but couldn’t get a majority. Rather than risk looking even more isolated, they abandoned it.”

Earlier this month, the hardliners called the decision to drop Cuba from the list a concession to the Castro dictatorship. That must make their decision to drop the legislation reinstating them a concession to reality.

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Stating the Obvious — Obama says Cuba’s not a Terror State

April 17, 2015

Here at Cuba Central, the remarkable changes in U.S.-Cuba relations have inflicted collateral damage on two of our most cherished metaphors.

Once, we were fond of the phrase, “U.S.-Cuba policy is stuck in the amber of its own ineffectiveness.” But, after the 2009 and 2011 travel and remittance reforms, the policy started to be unstuck. So, we retired it.

Today, we sadly wave goodbye to our beloved comparison of Cuba policy to “the self-licking ice cream cone.”

The “self-licking ice cream cone,” a phrase invented by Brigadier General Simon P. Worden, describes a process “that offers few benefits and exists primarily to justify or perpetuate its own existence” — as in the case of Alan Gross.

Before Alan Gross was freed from prison as part of last December’s diplomatic breakthrough, hardliners declared that the Obama administration should not negotiate for his release or change a single word of U.S. sanctions policy until he was freed unconditionally.

Hardliners applied the same pretzel logic to Cuba’s false designation as a state sponsor of terror. So long as Cuba remained on the list, they could brandish the argument that Americans shouldn’t visit or spend money there, in order to defend pointless and self-defeating policies like the ban on travel, which amounts to an abridgement of our basic rights as Americans.

With the elegant simplicity of Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes’ 133-character tweet — “Put simply, POTUS is acting to remove #Cuba from the State Sponsor of Terrorism list because Cuba is not a State Sponsor of Terrorism” — the thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations caused the “self-licking ice cream cone” metaphor to melt in our hands.

To President Obama, the evidence spoke for itself.

Even the Miami Herald found this logic compelling. Its editorial board responded to the news of Cuba’s delisting by admitting that the designation no longer fit Cuba and no longer reflected the world as it had become:

“As politically unpalatable as it may seem, the Obama administration’s decision to remove Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism is an inevitable bow to reality… Crossing Cuba off the list should not be deemed a reward but an acknowledgment of the change in behavior.”

But of course we can still count the Cold Warriors in Congress as unconvinced. They clutched the ice cream cone as if it hadn’t melted, as if the world hasn’t changed, as if the evidence and the powerful affirmation of the most influential historically pro-sanctions hometown newspaper meant nothing.

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (FL- 25) said in a statement, “Today, the administration has jeopardized U.S. national security by choosing to absolve the Castro dictatorship of its dangerous anti-American terrorist activities across the globe.”

Florida Senator Marco Rubio, on his first day as a presidential candidate, declared, “Cuba is a state sponsor of terrorism,” and blasted the decision as a “chilling message to our enemies abroad that this White House is no longer serious about calling terrorism by its proper name.”

Dumfounding, to say the least.

Diaz-Balart’s stand might cost the Miami Herald a subscription or two, but CNN points out that Rubio’s absolute commitment to keeping sanctions on Cuba is likely to cost him Cuban American votes in his presidential campaign in Florida, as well as millennial votes across the country. He is on the wrong side of history and the generational divide.

As Latino Decisions wrote recently, Cuban American hardliners represent “a generation that is out-of-step with younger Cubans and the broader Latino electorate in Florida. Looking forward to the 2016 presidential election, U.S. relations with Cuba will not mobilize Cuban-American voters, and to the degree that it does, it will be in support of opening the island to American commerce and values.”

In other words, the choice between living in the past and the future has more than political ramifications.

Like denying the overwhelming scientific evidence of climate change and the economic and environmental damage it is already doing in Florida and elsewhere, denying that diplomacy offers a greater chance than sanctions at realizing the values that most Americans and Cubans share leaves the hardliners look locked in a bygone age.

Diplomats for Cuba and the U.S. have already met to hammer out a framework for discussing human rights. They will soon sit down to exchange views on the return of fugitives from justice currently enjoying refuge in Cuba and the U.S.

Differences on problems like human rights matter. Unless we give diplomacy the chance to work, we can never know if those differences can be reconciled — or resolved to the satisfaction of all — but this is the choice demanded by changing times.

So we must ask opponents of normalization: Do you live in the present or the past? Do you live in the world of sanctions or diplomacy? Do you live in the world, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, that’s busy being born or dying?

As the ground shifts beneath the feet of our leaders, those are the questions they must answer.


The Center for Democracy in the Americas is offering a special opportunity to bring our supporters to Cuba and support CDA’s work to end the embargo.

Last December, President Obama announced sweeping reforms in U.S. policy toward Cuba. You are invited to be part of our people-to-people trip to celebrate this historic policy victory and to hear from the people that this change will benefit most — Cubans. We will meet with young entrepreneurs, students, and artists about their renewed optimism for the future now that President Obama has significantly eased sanctions and allowed for greater exchange and dialogue between our countries.

The trip will take place June 17-22. Space is limited, so please contact us if as soon as possible you are interested in joining us or if you would like more information.

You — our supporters — were part of this historic diplomatic opening. We sincerely hope you take this opportunity to celebrate with us.

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Surprisingly Substantive Summit

April 10, 2015

If the past inevitably was prologue, Western Hemisphere leaders attending the 7th Summit of the Americas in Panama could simply mail (or email) in the predictable results.

The U.S. President would brush aside criticisms of having ignored the region, yet again. He’d lecture the attendees on reducing deficits and trade barriers and raising democratic standards, and pose awkwardly with his counterparts, perhaps in a gaily decorated Guayabera, before rounding up the Secret Service and jumping aboard Air Force One.

This year the Summit is different. It’s not a complete departure from the past, but a welcome break with what has come before.

President Obama entered the Summit Friday morning having created a different context. The United States and Cuba are on the cusp of restoring diplomatic relations. He welcomed the chance to sit with Raul Castro at the table with the rest of our hemisphere’s leaders. His administration has deported two of the most notorious Salvadorans who can now face responsibility for heinous human rights violations during their country’s civil war. He drew the line last fall on Congressional inaction and used his executive authority to reform U.S. immigration policy, and followed up with a significant aid package for the region.

One misstep that should not be minimized is the administration’s decision to slap sanctions on seven Venezuelans, claiming that violations of human rights and the democratic process in their country threatened U.S. national security. At least it provided a useful reminder of the gap that still exists between the region’s adherence to the principle of sovereignty and our country’s belief in the universality of human rights and consequent self-assigned role of enforcer.

Cuba walks on the Summit stage for the first time, not as a sidekick in a unique set of negotiations, but as a regional actor in a complicated and nuanced place itself. Cuba is playing a central role in peace talks which hold the promise this year of settling the civil war between Colombia and the FARC. It joins a Summit largely united behind its greatest ally, Venezuela, and against the United States on the issue of sanctions. But it also finds itself in a region collectively hobbled by a slowing economy and declining prices for oil and natural resources.

For the moment, the Summit is a milestone for Cuba’s diplomacy and Raul Castro’s leadership. Looking forward, however, Cuba must find a place less defined by Cold War hostilities of the past, and more focused on how it can pass along a viable economy to a next generation that is committed to staying on the island and keeping its values relevant and alive. Fist fights on the streets of Panama City over competing definitions of “civil society” are not the way to the future.

There are real issues — compelling and important — on the conference table that need to be considered outside the Cuba-U.S. context. “Prosperity with equity, and the challenge of cooperation in the Americas,” may be a mediocre slogan, but it is a reasonably fair statement of what might bring the North and South together. Summits rarely end with decisive results, but this one could be heading in the right direction.

There is every indication that Cuba will finally come off the U.S. state sponsors of terror list. When this happens, the restoration of diplomatic relations will not be far behind. We can soon count the days before a Cuban raises his country’s flag above his nation’s embassy on 16th Street in Washington, and our country’s flag flutters in the breeze off the Malec√≥n in Havana. These vivid images will illustrate how President Obama’s belief in engagement is being vindicated by results.

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Normalization becomes the new normal

April 3, 2015

We promise to say this in 450 words or less. It is, after all, a holiday. And for many, the prospect of a nuclear agreement with Iran is closer to the top of mind than Cuba.

But can’t we just start this weekend by considering — and celebrating — what’s happened these last seven days?

Cuban and U.S. diplomats sat at the same table for unprecedented framework talks on human rights. U.S. policymakers dropped hints that Cuba would soon be dropped from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list. AirBnB started offering U.S. travelers the ability to make on-line reservations in Cuba. A new poll showed majority support among Cuban Americans for President Obama’s new policies. And American University released a fascinating series of papers: Implications of Normalization.

On December 16th, 2014, any one of these developments could have been sufficient to lead the news and instill us with a healthy measure of optimism.

Back then (by which we mean just 109 days ago) there were two constants in U.S.-Cuba policy: the United States had an unbreakable commitment to facilitating regime change on the island by isolating Cuba’s government and immiserating the Cuban people; and that policy, because it was owned by powerful Cuban American hardliners, would never be changed.

In that era of decades-long hostility, every hopeful moment that unexpectedly arose also evanesced quickly. It seemed inevitable that events would force one or both governments to regress to the mean.

Since December 17th, a new narrative — one that values normalcy over hostility — has taken hold.

We’re not saying everything is better. The embargo remains in place. The U.S. still seems unable to wash the regime change mentality completely out of our system. Cuba’s government continues to seek and exert control (50% Internet usage by 2020? Really?); although loyalists dissent publicly from those holding onto their “siege mentality.” Of course, both capitals still hold divergent views on human rights and foreign policy and express them unreservedly.

Yet, something fundamental is changing. The sharp disagreements that drove us apart for decades are now being mediated in a process that is designed to narrow and resolve our differences.

Today, Americans are engaged by the possibility they soon could use their MasterCard while staying in an Airbnb in Havana, or that further changes in public opinion will encourage U.S. policy makers to abolish all remaining limits on travel and lift the embargo once and for all.

Ultimately, we think these changes will build on one another and, perhaps faster than we imagine, normalization will be the new normal for U.S.-Cuba relations.

With that, we wish a happy weekend and happy holiday to you all.

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