Last week, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough offered a teaser about the year ahead: He said, “We’ll do audacious executive actions throughout the course of the year, I am confident of that,” in comments reported by The Hill.
We can’t say what those executive actions involve since “McDonough did not hint on which areas the president will sidestep Congress and set policy on his own.” Since, however, Congress may not act, and there’s much within the President’s power to expand on the new policy, and to trim back on the old, we hope Cuba’s on the agenda.
Trim back on the old? As we have said before, if President Obama’s new direction in Cuba policy were like a painting, it would be more like pentimento than an entirely new piece of work. This is when traces of an underlying image become visible despite the top layers of more recently applied paint. In seeing such a painting, the viewer must ask her or himself whether the artist changed his mind thoroughly, or if the old parts peeking through suggest indecision present in the artist’s mind.
Yesterday, USAID published a notice reminding us – and we thank Tracey Eaton, the journalist who brought it to our attention – that the U.S. government is still funding activities with regime-change money under programs enacted by Congress to overthrow Cuba’s government, despite the renewal of diplomatic relations.
Dressed up as “humanitarian assistance to political prisoners and their families, and politically marginalized individuals and groups in Cuba,” Tracey underscores the circular reasoning on which the $6 million grant program is based. He cuts to the core in his typically genteel way:
“I think it’s worth pointing out that many of those arrested for political reasons are taking part in programs funded by the U.S. government or U.S. government-financed organizations. I am not arguing for or against such programs or saying there are no human rights violations in Cuba, but I find it interesting that existing U.S. government programs are used to help justify and fuel the need for new programs.” [our emphasis]
The timing – and of course the substance – of this announcement is really telling. This declaration, and it’s not the first, that the U.S. is still in the regime change business comes one month to the day after the USAID Inspector General released a sharply critical report on how the agency’s recently-exposed debacles raised serious legal and regulatory questions about how these programs are administered.
The IG report focused on the faux twitter program, ZunZuneo, which “was secretly created to stir unrest and raised concerns about the legality and covert nature of the project,” and another effort in which an HIV prevention workshop was used as “a guise to recruit young Cubans to anti-government activism” and how it “undermined the credibility of USAID’s health work around the world.”
Note and reminder: the existence of both programs was brought to light by excellent investigative reporting by the Associated Press.
Just these two programs, the IG reported, were plagued by conflicts of interest (a fancy, high-dollar contract was awarded to a grantee’s family member without competition) and needlessly high expenses. Because these efforts were undertaken covertly to prevent the Cuban government from detecting or disrupting them, excessive secrecy led to the creation of bank accounts to place agency money in the Cayman Islands, and to practices that concealed to Cuban participants the knowledge that they were involved in programs funded by regime change dollars.
But, their government did find out. The IG determined that the programs lacked safeguards to prevent them from being penetrated by the Cuban government and subverted by Cuban intelligence, and left Cubans participating in the programs vulnerable to being denigrated and threatened.
So, it’s reasonable to ask – did USAID take any of the IG’s findings on board, or is it happening again? There’s language in yesterday’s new announcement – “the primary goal of the program,” USAID seeks creative and innovative approaches in the design and delivery of the monies – that begged questions about what is really being funded.
Tellingly, USAID did offer cautions informed by Alan Gross’s arrest – to avoid the use of American citizens, recruit personnel who are fluent in Spanish and who’ve worked in Cuba before, and make it clear that recipients can’t sue USAID if they are caught, injured or killed (literally) – suggesting that something bigger is afoot than the delivery of humanitarian assistance.
Undoubtedly, there’s a regime change devotee in the USAID bureaucracy ready to dismiss these legitimate questions with the pettifoggery that we heard from the agency when ZunZuneo and the ‘not-really-an HIV-workshop’ debacles were first exposed. Then, the audacity of deceit ruled the day.
So, yes, we’d favor a long list of executive actions to increase travel and trade with Cuba, especially ones that free U.S.-Cuba commerce from the shadow of excess enforcement stemming from the old policy.
But, we’d like to see more. From the outset, President Obama’s new direction in Cuba policy was predicated on the idea that it does not serve America’s interests, or the Cuban people, to try and push Cuba toward collapse.
In 2016, is it too audacious for the President to cut the funding for – or at least reform – these efforts, so that the entire government, including USAID, speaks with one, clear voice when it comes to engaging with Cuba during his last year in office?
We can only hope.
As he departed the presidency in 1961, Dwight D. Eisenhower summarized the foreign policy accomplishments of his administration. Ending the Korean War and preserving peace in the Middle East were among them. But, he also noted a few of the world’s continuing dangers, starting with what he called the “Communist penetration of Cuba” which he labeled a real and serious threat.
Defining the challenges of his final year in office, President Obama used his last State of the Union address to make his most forceful appeal to Congress to “lift the embargo” on Cuba since he announced the new U.S. policy toward Cuba in December 2014.
“Fifty years of isolating Cuba,” he said, “had failed to promote democracy, setting us back in Latin America. That’s why we restored diplomatic relations, opened the door to travel and commerce, and positioned ourselves to improve the lives of the Cuban people. You want to consolidate our leadership and credibility in the hemisphere? Recognize that the Cold War is over. Lift the embargo.”
Congress had heard the appeal before; during last year’s address, after explaining the purpose behind his shift in policy, the President said, “Congress should begin the work of ending the embargo.”
Tuesday night he hit it harder – making it two years in a row that he urged Congress to take down what presidents dating back to Eisenhower had built up.
Everything is happening so fast. Our compassion, concerns, and anxieties are pulled in a dozen different directions. But, isn’t this a time when we could stop and admire the beauty of this historical moment?
Two years in a row a U.S. president actually said the state of the union would be stronger by ending the embargo against Cuba. “The mere knowledge that such a work could be created makes me twice the person I was,” Goethe said.
Tuesday night we felt that way, too; even more, after dozens of Members of Congress heard what the president said and rose from their seats to applaud. Stop for a minute and smell that coffee!
As we previously reported, there is majority, bipartisan support nationally for ending the embargo, including among Floridians and Cuban Americans. With Congress hesitant to act, the upcoming election, and the impending close of President Obama’s second term, there is a greater sense of urgency in Washington and Havana to push Cuba policy forward in 2016.
In just a few weeks, Representatives Tom Emmer (MN-6) and Kathy Castor (FL-14), lead sponsors of legislation to repeal the trade embargo, are bringing a partisan delegation from the U.S. Congress to visit Cuba to build support for opening travel and trade relations with Cuba among the new or uncommitted colleagues who will accompany them.
Aside from the difficult task of adopting such sweeping legislation in an election year, diplomacy has brought changes to the U.S.-Cuba relationship, such as the restoration of commercial airline service, direct mail service, and direct phone service, and U.S. ports and U.S. businesses are seeking ways to use the new authorities granted by administration policies to create commercial relationships with Cuban counterparts. All of this builds on the policy opening in anticipation of a new president taking office in January 2017.
Josefina Vidal, who leads the Cuban side of the normalization talks, told the official Cuban News Agency that she’s “beginning to feel a certain bit of realism as the electoral process in the United States approaches; we don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Neither do we. But, just like Governor McAuliffe hit the accelerator of the 1957 Chevy he drove through the streets of Havana during his trade mission to Cuba last week, we’re part of a larger effort to encourage policymakers, business leaders, advocates and experts to wrench as much change as possible out of U.S. policy before the next president is sworn in. We have a year and hope to put it to good use. Read the rest of this entry »
In the days before President Obama’s 2015 State of the Union address, we wrote about the promising dimensions of his new direction in Cuba policy – it’s strong emphasis on expanding travel, encouraging diplomacy, broadening engagement by “ball players and marine scientists, artists and experts,” and bringing the business community farmers, businesses, and individuals with property compensation claims into the process to increase the momentum for reform.
In the last year, all of this – and more – has come to pass.
During the first days of the New Year, we got to see first-hand the benefits of the policy when we joined a trade delegation led by Virginia’s Governor Terry McAuliffe – a visit that produced cooperation agreements between the Cuban and Virginia Port Authorities, and between Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Havana.
The first clears the way for businesses in Virginia to build and grow relationships with counterparts in Cuba; the second means students from both countries will be able to expand their horizons through academic exchanges and joint research projects.
McAuliffe, who delighted onlookers by driving a 1956 pink Chevrolet Bel Air named Lola around Havana, concluded his visit to Cuba by previewing an appeal he promised to make to Paul Ryan, the House Speaker, Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, and to Members of the House and Senate across the political aisle:
“2016 needs to be the year that we move our relationship forward, that we end this embargo, and we do the right thing for the citizens of the United States of America and the citizens of Cuba.”
He also told reporters, he’d be surprised if the President didn’t visit Cuba. The President’s Deputy National Security Advisor, Ben Rhodes, delivered the same message to reporters over the weekend, as he laid out the administration’s foreign policy priorities for the coming year.
What’s exciting to us is that the administration continues moving forward on efforts to broaden and deepen the reforms. Reuters broke an exclusive story this afternoon saying the U.S. government is finally considering putting to an end the program that lures Cuban doctors and nurses off their foreign postings with promises of easy entry into the United States.
A year ago, Rep. Rosa DeLauro and more than a dozen colleagues urged the administration to cancel this program, especially after lauding what Cuba had done to fight the Ebola outbreak in Western Africa. Cancelling this program – conceived under President George W. Bush as a brain-drain effort – is not just consistent with President Obama’s new direction, it is long overdue.
The progress we have seen in the last year was made possible by smart and strategic policy initiatives but also by patient diplomacy that set aside the kinds of distractions which left us trapped in the Cold War mindset
If this can be the steady state of our diplomacy it augers well for the state of the U.S.-Cuba reunion.