The hardliners’ autumn

September 25, 2015

This Tuesday, on the eve of the autumnal equinox, Pope Francis flew north to Washington from Santiago de Cuba to meet President Obama. The meeting joined the moral authority of the Pontiff and the political authority of the President to accelerate the embargo’s ongoing fall from grace.

Aboard his plane from Cuba to the United States, Pope Francis told reporters that the Vatican’s long-standing opposition to embargoes was founded on the social doctrine of the Church, which he called “precise and just.”
 
In Cuba, he urged Presidents Castro and Obama to persevere on the path toward normalization and held out their diplomacy “as an example of reconciliation for the entire world.”
 
At the White House, he repeated this thought, saying, “The efforts which were recently made to mend broken relationships and to open new doors to cooperation within our human family represent positive steps along the path of reconciliation, justice, and freedom.”
 
And again in his address to the U.S. Congress: “I would like to recognize the efforts made in recent months to help overcome historic differences linked to painful episodes of the past,” the pope said. “This has required, and requires, courage and daring.”
 
The decision by Pope Francis to bring together the themes of leadership and the Church’s opposition to trade sanctions in his trips to Cuba and the United States is significant.
 
It only highlights what President Obama has done to focus attention and national debate on how U.S. interests in Cuba and Latin America would best be served by ending the embargo.
 
He began the drumbeat on December 17th, the day he announced the diplomatic breakthrough with Cuba, saying “I look forward to engaging Congress in an honest and serious debate about lifting the embargo.”
 
He repeated his call one month later in his State of the Union Address, saying “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.”
 
Secretary of State John Kerry repeated the message at the State Department on July 20th, during a joint press availability with Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, and said the momentum he expected joint negotiations to generate as bilateral problems were resolved would help Cuba and the United States “make the most out of this moment [and] not lose the future with respect to the embargo.”
 
In Havana, after he spoke at the raising of the American Flag at the U.S. Embassy in August, Secretary Kerry returned to the subject of the embargo talking to reporters with Minister Rodríguez, again saying publicly that the President advocates for and supports lifting the embargo, adding, significantly (remember he is speaking in Cuba), “the embargo is a sort of two-way street. It requires both of us to do things.”
 
Even this week, from the State Department podium, spokesman John Kirby gave the drumbeat a fresh rhythm when he suggested the U.S. might abstain when the U.N. votes on Cuba’s resolution condemning the embargo as a way of taking a position “that you want the law changed.”
 
The president, the Secretary, and perhaps even the pope know that the U.S. Congress, as it is currently constituted, will not repeal the embargo against Cuba. That will take an election.
 
Secretary Kerry was not lining up with the hardliners in Cuba when he pointedly stated that both countries will have to work to get the embargo lifted. It’s a two-way street. No one is off the hook.
 
The administration is not naïve. The effort to overturn this faulty policy needs to build over time. They are wise to seize the opportunity presented by the pope’s visit – and the controversy that could arise if it abstained on the U.N. vote – as teachable moments for the American public.
 
We are seeing not just a shift in the conversation, but a shift in power. Hardliners aren’t dominating the discussion anymore. It’s isn’t loopy to talk about ending the embargo against Cuba when the pope and the president join in common cause in an effort to make it so. It’s common sense.

Read the rest of this entry »

Advertisements

As Francis Takes Flight to Cuba, Obama Revises the Rules

September 18, 2015
Pope Francis will land in Cuba tomorrow for a three-day visit for what the Vatican has called a “complex trip.”
 
In the run-up to his visit, Cubans were able to prescreen a video from the Pontiff whose message was direct, open, and clear:
 
“I would like to convey to you such a simple message. I think it’s important and necessary. Jesus loves you very much. He seriously loves you. He carries you in his heart and knows better than anyone what each of us needs and craves, what our deepest wishes are. And he never abandons us. And when we don’t behave as he wishes, he is always there, ready to comfort, to give us new hope, a new opportunity, a new life. He never leaves. He is always there.”
 
Like John Paul II and Benedict XVI before him, Pope Francis is visiting Cuba believing he can make a difference – in the lives of faithful Cubans and in the normalization process between the U.S. and Cuban governments that was able to launch, in part, because of his support.
 
There’s a sign in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston – One person can make a difference, and everyone should try – quoting a speech that today exemplifies the leadership that Pope Francis is trying to provide.
 
Much has been written about Francis’s imminent trip to the island that demonstrates his seriousness of purpose and illustrates the ripple effects his visit can have.
 
The commentary reminds us that he is the first South American to lead the Roman Catholic Church, a native speaker of Spanish, the author of a book about John Paul II’s 1998 visit to Cuba, and someone who has dedicated his papacy, as Andrew Chesnut reminds us, “to the periphery.”
 
It is from this vantage point that Cardinal Jaime Ortega says the pontiff is paying “special deference” to the Cuban Catholic Church at a time when, as the Miami Herald reported, “interesting perspectives are being opened in our national life by the new possibilities of dialogue and mutual listening taking place between the United States and Cuba for the good of both countries and all of Latin America.”
 
The opening, which Pope Francis helped make possible, is not the only motivating force in his visit, but it is present in its political and pastoral dimensions.  The Pope is expected to raise his voice in favor of ending the U.S. embargo against Cuba – if not on the island, perhaps later in Washington or in New York at the United Nations where he will address the General Assembly – because, as the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolinsaid, ‘the Holy See had always opposed the trade and economic embargo against Cuba because it hurts ordinary people most.’
 
This is consistent with his history of John Paul II’s visit.  As Nick Miroff writes, “the bookwas critical of Cuba’s version of authoritarian socialism, but it echoed John Paul’s call for an end to the punitive U.S. trade embargo.”
 
In his journey to and across Cuba, Pope Francis will elevate the role that Cuba’s Catholic Church is playing in the pews, the places outside of Church, and the halls of power.
 
Quoting again the Miami Herald, “Since John Paul’s visit in 1998 and Benedict’s 2012 trip, the church has been consolidating its strength on the island and building on those papal visits to gain more space for its activities, which range from educating Cuba’s budding private entrepreneurs in its Cuba Emprende program to running soup kitchens for the elderly and after-school programs for children.”
 
Cardinal Ortega will be by the Pope’s side, and for good reason.  As Reuters explains, “Ortega negotiated the release of 126 political prisoners in 2010 and 2011. He also played a role last year in Cuba’s detente with the United States, leading to the renewal of diplomatic relations after 54 years of Cold War hostility.”
 
That has made the Cardinal controversial among U.S. hardliners who don’t appreciate the extent to which the church has become “the largest non-governmental organization in Cuba,” again quoting Reuters.  In 2012, the director for Radio and TV Martí, Carlos Garcia-Perez, called Cardinal Ortega “a lackey” just ahead of Pope Benedict’s visit, and the Cardinal has been under fire for his role in creating greater space for expression in Cuba.
 
It may be politically inconvenient to see the Church erase the black-and-white imagery with which hardliners describe Cuba, but that has not discouraged pilgrims from Miami, hopeful about the Pope’s message of reconciliation, from making the trip to Cuba (some for the very first time) in order to hear and see Francis say Mass.
 
In fact, the last two Papal visits have changed Cubans’ lives. Dionisio Garcia, the archbishop of Santiago de Cuba and president of the Cuban Bishops’ Conference, told  Reuters, “Things have improved for all religions. I believe the state’s mentality has changed. There is more tolerance at the moment for religious practices. Not everything one would want, but it has changed for the better.”
 
Not everything is better.  Ahead of the Pope’s visit to Cuba, Cuban police arrested protesters from The Ladies in White, as NBC News reported, but these detentions gain greater visibility because the Pope is about to land for a three-day trip to Cuba.
 
Three time zones away from the Kennedy Library, Senator Marco Rubio closed the debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library with the other candidates running for president, saying he’d fly Air Force One to Israel, South Korea and Japan, to show our allies “we stand with them.” 
 
Then, he’d fly to China “not just to meet with those adversaries of ours that are there, but also to meet with those that aspire to freedom and liberty within China.”  He said he’d fly into Moscow, meeting both with Putin and his opponents.
 
But, ultimately, he’d never go to Cuba on Air Force One, until its people “could choose its leaders and its own destiny.”
 
It’s a mighty contrast with how Pope Francis defines his leadership.  He is acting to make a difference now; not to dictate Cuba’s future from Rome (or have it dictated from Washington), but to put the pen in the hands of the Cuban people so they can write their own.
 
The Pope’s plane lands in Havana tomorrow.  Someday, Air Force One will land there, too.  We suspect we will see it arrive before January 20th, 2017.  Aboard will be a president who made significant changes in U.S. policy toward Cuba even today.

Read the rest of this entry »


A Guy from TV Marti Walks into a Bar

September 11, 2015

Stop us if you’ve heard this one.

A civil servant from TV Martí walks into a bar, orders 12 shots, and starts drinking them as fast as he can.

The bartender interrupts him to ask, “Why on Earth are you drinking so fast?”

The guy says, “You’d be drinking fast, too, if you had what I have.”

The bartender asks, “What do you have?”

The Martí man replies, “75 cents.”

Okay, that was a joke.

But, when Tracey Eaton reported earlier this week that our government is spending “U.S. tax dollars for parodies of Cuban politicians,” he was dead serious.

Tracey’s item pointed to a solicitation from the Broadcasting Board of Governors posted on an e-government website at the end of August.  This agency is home to Voice of America and, importantly for our story, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting – or OCB – which operates Radio and TV Martí.

Under the memorable title “OCBSatire,” the Office of Cuba Broadcasting announced that it has “a requirement for exclusive, non-transferrable rights for a Cuban satirical variety and comedy sketch show for inclusion in its programming.”

You will be forgiven for assuming the word “requirement” indicates a desire on OCB’s part to spice up its dry reporting about Cuba.

Instead, the requirements are really, well, requirements that the businesses submitting proposals must observe to have their shows picked in exchange for an unspecified amount of money.

This solicitation, as if spelling out a detailed regulation to control air pollution, is quite granular. The OCB wants scripts for ten shows. Scripts must be thirty minutes in length.   “Each skit should ideally be comprised of 3 segments with accompanying commercial breaks followed by a formal close.”

OCB is not looking for just any kind of comedy to entertain its Cuban audience.

“These skits must be able to parody public figures, politicians, government officials, entertainers, as well as recognizable members of Cuban civil society groups who are active in the political and civil sphere and widely known throughout the Island.”

Of course, no U.S. government contract to secure sketch comedies to promote American-style free speech in Cuba would be complete without provisions giving the Office of Cuba Broadcasting the right to prescreen and censor the content as it sees fit. Really.

But, here’s the best requirement.  “These parodies must be uniquely funny, ironic, satirical and entertaining to a wide cross-section of the Cuban population.”

The U.S. government is going to decide that?  Earlier this week, we wrote the contracting officers at the BBG and asked “who will determine which proposal is selected?”  We never heard back.

If the BBG lacks in-house capacity to decide what’s “uniquely funny,” maybe they’ll get advice from  the  team that put up a prime time comedy show on Radio Martí that featured a cast whose actors were mostly dead, as The New York Times reported in 1985, by the time the program aired.  Or maybe they’ll get help from the producers of “The Chief’s Office,” described by the Associated Press as “a satire on the life behind the scenes in the fictional office of a military leader with an extraordinary resemblance to Fidel Castro.”

No need to sound “spoiler alert” before saying these previous attempts at satire – not to mention other not-so-hilarious episodes featuring an invasion, acts of terror, exploding cigars and poison-secreting wet suits – have been completely ineffective at upending Cuba’s government.

As bad as this all sounds, our complaints about OCBSatire go deeper.

First, if the contract goes to Cubans applying from the island, they would be exposed to legal jeopardy under Law 88.  It forbids collaboration “in any way with foreign radio or television stations, newspapers, magazines or other mass media with the purpose of … destabilizing the country and destroying the socialist state.”  Law 88 was written with Radio and TV Martí in mind; thus, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting is giving Cubans the chance to fall victim to the same law that got Alan Gross in trouble.

Second, as we have pointed out before, there are government loyalists in Cuba, as Michael Bustamante described them in his piece for Foreign Affairs, “A Cuban Conundrum,” who passionately believe that President Raúl Castro is making a mistake in his diplomacy with the United States, and think our “opening” of doors to more travel and trade is simply regime change by another name.

His article identifies what concerns hardliners in Cuba the most: the “deleterious impact” of U.S. media and U.S. offers to expand Cubans’ access to the Internet for free.  Jokey Cuba Broadcasting Office sitcoms play right into their fears.

Third, when ABC News asked Susan Rice, the president’s National Security Advisor, why Radio and TV Martí were still pumping out anti-Castro government articles even after the President said ‘we’re no longer in the business of regime change,’ Ambassador Rice responded “We will continue to say and do what we think is appropriate to advance our interests in human rights and democracy in Cuba… we’re not going to change just because the Cuban government may wish that we did otherwise.”  So, there’s no one  can say that the Office of Cuba Broadcasting went rogue on this.  The Administration owns it.

Fourth, as Bill LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh remind us in their invaluable book “Back Channel,” activities by Radio and TV Martí have previously been used by Cuba to bring hoped-for diplomatic progress to a dead-end conclusion.

This matters.  Joshua Hersh pointed out this summer in his excellent review of the Alan Gross case that Cuba will inevitably raise objections to the regime change programs that threaten its sovereignty in the negotiations to normalize relations – which, as we report below, resumed in Havana today.

We will wager that when the Cuban delegation took its seats, Deputy Assistant Secretary Alex Lee did not begin his remarks by saying, “Two Cuban brothers dressed in army fatigues stop into a bar for a drink.  Stop me if you’ve heard this one.”

In its solicitation for regime change sitcoms, BBG cuts off the application process next Monday.  It would be nice if someone in the White House and State Department twisted the money spigot off on this dumb waste of taxpayer money before BBG goes further and puts the larger purposes of President Obama’s diplomatic achievement with Cuba at risk.
Read the rest of this entry »


Definitions of Insanity on a Possible “Take Out the Garbage Day

September 4, 2015
In Washington, Friday afternoon is prime time on what White House operatives call “take out the garbage day.”

It’s a term for managing the news cycle.  Simply put, it means scheduling the release of unpopular or controversial information to the U.S. news media on the eve of a weekend, or late enough in the day, so reporters are less able to heat-up a story with angry sources and editors are too jammed up to give a Cuba story a bigger headline as they put together tomorrow’s news.

We’re betting something like that is afoot with Cuba…again.

A year ago today, the Obama Administration followed this time-honored practice when it waited until Friday, September 5th to let the word go forth the President had renewed the authorities under the Trading With the Enemy Act (also known as TWEA) that are the underpinnings of U.S. sanctions against Cuba.

He has until September 14th to decide whether to extend that authority for another year.   It will not surprise us one whit if a press release stating he has done exactly that is sent around before this week’s NewsBlast sails into your inbox.  But, if it doesn’t happen on this Friday afternoon of a three-day Labor Day weekend, we think you will be reading that TWEA was extended by Mr. Obama sometime in the next ten days.

During the six years of the Obama presidency, as we have gotten further away from the Cold War, the illogic inherent of this President renewing TWEA has been increasingly, emphatically clear: Cuba is not our enemy.  The embargo is a failure.  Renewing this authority, year after year, has only deepened America’s isolation in the Western Hemisphere and more broadly in the world.

Surely, he understood that.

U.S. policy toward Cuba is often used as a classic definition of insanity. A sentence buried in the President’s December 17th remarks dog-whistled that definition for all able to hear:
“To those who oppose the steps I’m announcing today, let me say that I respect your passion and share your commitment to liberty and democracy.  The question is how we uphold that commitment.  I do not believe we can keep doing the same thing for over five decades and expect a different result.”

Had we known last year on September 5th that exactly one-hundred days later he would announce to the U.S. public, simultaneously with President Castro, that the two countries had agreed to resume diplomatic relations, 2014’s TWEA renewal might have gone down a little easier.

Now, it’s 2015.  Today, the U.S. and Cuba have diplomatic relations, two functioning embassies, talks on matters from aviation to human rights, and increasing numbers of U.S. travelers going to Cuba.  Now that the President has urged Congress in his State of the Union Address to end the embargo, why would he reinstate Cuba’s status under the Trading With the Enemy Act for another year?

Wouldn’t that be insane (or at least a really cringe-inducing, forehead slapping moment)?
Yes.  Nevertheless, it’s likely he will soon sign another TWEA determination because of how Catch-22, a corollary of the classic definition of insanity, so neatly applies to Cuba.
Catch-22 is from the title of Joseph Heller’s novel.  Set in World War II, the book is focused on an Army Air Corps bombardier, Captain John Yossarian who, with his other colleagues, tries to fulfill his service requirements, maintain his sanity, and live long enough to return home in one piece.

Yossarian wants to be considered medically unfit to serve and relieved from duty.  The catch is that if he continues flying the increasing number of missions he is assigned, that would show he is losing his marbles.  But, if he asks to be relieved from duty, that would be the action of a sane man and he’d be forced to keep flying.  So, he keeps flying.

Consider how closely TWEA parallels the core premise of Heller’s book.

The Trading With the Enemy Act has been branded by Amnesty International as “detrimental to human rights in Cuba.”  The President could –  as Florida International University Professor of Law José Gabilondo argued this week in the Huffington Post – allow the authority to lapse.  But, the embargo would not disappear with it.

Elements of the harshest sanctions imposed on Cuba would continue to reside in Helms-Burton and The Cuban Democracy Act which can only be repealed by Congress.  Thus, once TWEA lapsed, the responsibility for U.S. sanctions would drop into Congress’s lap.  That would score a suitably elegant set of political points, but its elegance would be lost on Members of the House and Senate who like the embargo as it is.

Even worse, as Robert Muse, a veteran sanctions lawyer, and Cuba scholar, Professor Bill LeoGrande, have both argued, TWEA is a two-edged sword.

He can’t – and we can’t – live without TWEA because it is both the embodiment of the embargo and the source of President Obama’s power to weaken the embargo’s grip on travel, remittances, and trade.

Obama has to renew the embargo under TWEA, so he can keep the power to continue watering it down.

Now that’s a Catch-22.

Read the rest of this entry »