“Split Screens” – Obama’s visit to Cuba and the future of U.S.-Cuba relations

March 25, 2016
On Tuesday, President Obama delivered a breathtaking speech to the Cuban people.

It was a speech only he could deliver; with powerful words spoken from his unique perspective as America’s first African-American president, and true to his devotion to a new diplomacy that reflects our ideals and the realities of the post-Cold War world.

One of those realities is terrorism. Watching his speech on television in the U.S. meant seeing it through a split screen; one eye on the podium and the audience in Cuba’s majestic Gran Teatro de la Habana and another on the horrific terror strike in the Brussels airport and subway system.

Although the president touched on the tragedy at the start of his remarks, those of us who watched the speech on television seated with Cubans in Havana, had a unique split-screen experience of our own.

We heard President Obama, who came to office talking to one audience, the Cuban American diaspora, and speaking one word of Spanish, “libertad,” code for regime change, now using the rich vocabulary of engagement to articulate “one overarching goal” for our relations with Cuba: “advancing the mutual interests of our two countries, including improving the lives of our people, both Cubans and Americans.

His address, adorned with references to Jose Marti, sounded big themes: respect for Cubans and aspects of their revolutionary project; reconciliation of the Cuban family; race and the evolution of America’s democracy; the promise of generational change and prospects for a brighter future.

As he spelt out the terms of a new bilateral relationship, we heard him addressing audiences in both countries: historicos in Havana and hardliners in Washington; the business class in America and entrepreneurs in Cuba; Cubans and Cuban Americans, old and young; the Cubans who want to realize the goals of their revolution through 21stcentury means, and Americans who want to support their neighbors as they plan a future in this new special period of peace.

Make no mistake: this was a respectful and challenging speech about what the U.S. reconciliation could mean to Cuba’s people, delivered in ways that surely inspired some and discomforted others. The president also explained to the people of our country why he is working to normalize relations with Cuba and why doing so serves our interests in this new time.

That said, reasonable men and women of good will in the U.S. – not just opponents of the President or his policy – criticized his reaction to Brussels as the day unfolded.  He should have cut his visit short, they said, or devoted more time in his speech to the tragedy; he should have skipped the baseball game against Cuba’s National Team, not spoken to ESPN, or not done the wave (here, they might have a point).

But, had he left his work in Cuba unfinished, it is likely that much of what made this trip so powerful – the speech, the joint press conference with President Castro in which both men took questions (to the astonishment of many Cubans), along with that really awkward hand-jive moment at the end (which astonished us all) would have been blunted.

For the president to leave Cuba in the wake of the attacks would have been a throwback to what had already delayed this moment for decades; the idea that the U.S.-Cuba relationship was either too unimportant or so immutable in its existing form, it did not merit reconsideration or the President’s full attention.  Instead, he persisted and remained as connected to his task, and to the people of Cuba, as they were to him.

In this edition of the Cuba Central News Brief, we provide a concise and curated selection of reports we recommend reading that account for each stage of his journey to Cuba, as well as a more expansive treatment of a remarkable speech that is likely to be influential for a long time to come.

“I plant a white rose.”

As the New York Times noted, the President at the outset of his speech, communicated his respect for the talents and ingenuity of Cubans, the service offered by Cuban doctors in places like  West Africa, to alleviate suffering and care for the poor, and the role of Cuba’s government in facilitating the peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC.  His words  to the Cuban people, suffused with the spirit of Jose Martí, began by quoting the poet, “Cultivo una rosa blanca,” I plant a white rose.

Offering more than just grace notes, the president gave his sharpest and clearest statements to date that he intended to bury the Cold War, and with words that should echo in the Council of State and the U.S. Congress, it was time to “leave behind the ideological battles of the past.”  Like many in Cuba and the United States, he affirmed, “I know the history, but I refuse to be trapped by it.”

Obama’s American Creed

With expressions both challenging and reconciling, the President acknowledged that “part of Cuba’s identity is its pride in being a small island nation that could stand up for its rights and shake the world.”  Noting the new era of reduced bilateral tensions, and invoking Dr. Martin Luther King’s in “the fierce urgency of now,” President Obama said it was time to set aside the fear of change and embrace it.

By renouncing the intention of U.S. policy to impose change on Cuba, “having removed,” as he said, “the shadow of history from our relationship,” the president could then give voice to ideas core to the American canon and creed.  He said things that his predecessors had only said – or dreamt of saying – from the comfort of Washington.  But, he could say them in Cuba, to Cuba’s leadership, and to Cubans watching him on national television, because he had summoned the courage to make the trip.

“I believe that every person should be equal under the law. Every child deserves the dignity that comes with education, and health care and food on the table and a roof over their heads. I believe citizens should be free to speak their mind without fear to organize, and to criticize their government, and to protest peacefully, and that the rule of law should not include arbitrary detentions of people who exercise those rights.  I believe that every person should have the freedom to practice their faith peacefully and publicly. And, yes, I believe voters should be able to choose their governments in free and democratic elections.”

The transcript shows the president was interrupted throughout this passage by applause, but accounts from the scene indicated that not everyone in attendance clapped.

Reconciliation

The Washington Post reported the speech “was like nothing the people of Cuba have heard in many years.” In it, the president “issued an emotional appeal for an end to decades of ‘painful and sometimes violent separation’ between those who left for new lives in the United States – who were long officially reviled [in Cuba] as traitors – and those who remained behind.”

The split screen projected its magic in Miami. “Mr. Obama’s emotional reference to émigré Cubans drew tears from many watchers,” the Financial Times reported, as they stared at their televisions in South Florida.

Here, too, the special genius of the speech was in evidence, as the president associated his person and his background with the lives of the lighter skin Cubans who comprise nearly all of the diaspora. “They also know what it’s like to be an outsider, and to struggle, and to work harder to make sure their children can reach higher in America.”

This speech will be remembered for the momentum the President chose to put behind the reconciliation of the Cuban family.

Racial Justice as a Metaphor for Democracy

When President Lyndon Johnson addressed the U.S. Congress in 1965 to urge passage of the Voting Rights Act, he pointed to the faith expressed by black Americans who were using the mechanisms of democracy to win back rights they had been deprived of by those same mechanisms. Forty years later, Barack Obama, the truest beneficiary of Johnson’s legacy, again invoked his life story, as a message to Cuba’s considerable Afro-Cuban population, and as a metaphor for the therapeutic effects of democracy, even as he conceded our country’s continuing challenges with racial bias.

President Obama noted that in 1959,

“The year that my father moved to America, it was illegal for him to marry my mother, who was white, in many American states. When I first started school, we were still struggling to desegregate schools across the American South.  But people organized; they protested; they debated these issues; they challenged government officials. And because of those protests, and because of those debates, and because of popular mobilization, I’m able to stand here today as an African-American and as President of the United States. That was because of the freedoms that were afforded in the United States that we were able to bring about change.”

As he reminded his audience of his first meeting with President Raul Castro, at the memorial for Nelson Mandela, he said “We want our engagement to help lift up the Cubans who are of African descent, who’ve proven that there’s nothing they cannot achieve when given the chance.” This message sparked the Los Angeles Times to ask, What Obama’s visit means for Cuba’s national conversation about race.

The Role of Young Cubans in Building their Country’s Future

If the President’s opening to Cuba is allowed to flourish – by decisions made in Washington and Havana now and after he and Raul Castro leave office – there should be a peace dividend deposited into the pockets of Cuba’s next generation. Without it, the President warned, Cuba’s youth will lose hope.  To our ears, what could have sounded like a tough love message – opponents of reform in Cuba who are concerned that U.S. policy really hasn’t changed – was delivered with a white rose attached.

In his remarks, he held up the example of Sandra Lidice Aldama, who chose to start a small business. “Cubans, she said, can ‘innovate and adapt without losing our identity…our secret is not copying or imitating but simply being ourselves.”

In this new era, the President seemed to say approvingly, Cuba would still be Cuba, that it’s revolutionary values would live on, if that’s what its young people decided.

Three days after the President left town, his State Department unveiled a $750,000 grant program targeting Cuban youth, and invited the kind of social service organizations our government has used in the past that destroyed trust in our motives, to lift up Cuban youth.  With that, a petal fell from the white rose and hit the floor with a resounding thud.

What Happens Next?

As we published tonight, the President has returned home, and the Rolling Stones were getting ready to hit the stage in Havana. Now, the task begins of testing whether the President’s trip and his carefully chosen words give greater force to his reforms and make them more resilient, less prone to reversal, in the months and years ahead.

The visit was clearly a bonanza for U.S. businesses – like General Electric, Western Union, the Carnival Cruise Line, and Starwood Hotels – who got to join the President’s entourage and announce deals his policy allowed them to make.  Even as the hardline opponents of the president’s policies called these contracts sell-outs of the Cuban opposition, Cuban dissident, José Daniel Ferrer called the president’s speech, “a light in the dark.”

But, perhaps the most realistic assessment was offered by Elaine Diaz, whose words, ring authentic and true, whether your split screen shines in Cuba or the United States:

“Tomorrow,” she wrote, “Cuba will still be Cuba. And Cubans will leave their television screens and start worrying again about daily issues: food, salaries, housing, public transportation. But it will be, hopefully, a better Cuba. Not because we received an American president on our soil, which is great, but because the signs we pay attention to will no longer be expressed in binaries: capitalism or socialism, good or bad, rain as resistance or as purification. Our world will be a more nuanced one.”

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Week In Review: Obama in Cuba in America’s season of cynicism

March 18, 2016
A year before his historic election, then-Senator Barack Obama told a crowd in Miami’s Little Havana, “We’ve been engaged in a failed policy with Cuba for the last 50 years. And we need to change it.”

Senator Obama, as Bill LeoGrande recounts, joined this new vision of Cuba policy with substantive proposals to restore Cuban-American family travel, remittances, and people-to-people contacts, and to resume engagement with Cuba’s government on issues that affected our common interests.

As a political candidate, Mr. Obama’s positions were a bet against the conventional wisdom that no one could be elected president without offering full-throated support for the embargo; as a leader for the nation’s foreign policy, he would stage a sharp departure from fifty years of foreign policy orthodoxy.

Converting these risky bets into round trip tickets to Cuba on Air Force One took courage and remarkable insight into what made this time the right time for a policy change of this magnitude.

So, how did the President pull this off?

First, he changed U.S. sanctions; not all at once, but by taking manageable bites, acting without much fanfare, taking mostly safe steps first. In 2009, he began by removing the Bush-era limits on the right of Cuban Americans to visit Cuba and provide financial support for their families.

In the beginning, it seemed counterintuitive to make the community most responsible for keeping the failed Cuba policy in place the most immediate beneficiaries of that policy’s liberalization. But, as visits by Cuban Americans to the island increased 8-fold under the new policy, giving the diaspora “skin in the game” also gave the President political license for more encompassing reforms. Two years later, he reopened non-tourist travel for all Americans, visits which have also grown exponentially, further increasing political support for additional reforms.

Second, he has managed Congress brilliantly. After repeatedly using his executive authority to create legal exceptions to the embargo – allowing increases in travel, trade, and commercial contacts with Cuba in 2009, 2011, 2015, and 2016 – not a single reform has been reversed, defunded, or delayed by legislative actions, or by court decisions, as in the case of immigration.

Third, he never caved under controversy. During the slow, steady seven years of President Obama’s purposeful evolution of U.S. policy, there have been troubling and unwelcomed developments – the long prison term of USAID subcontractor Alan Gross prominent among them – of the kind that caused earlier presidents to drop Cuba from their reform agendas. Hardline Members of the U.S. Congress – Republicans and Democrats – even told the administration not to negotiate for Alan Gross’s release, because doing so would require the U.S. to make concessions.

Today, Alan Gross walks free because the President ignored their advice and protected his policy goals while finding a formula that got Mr. Gross, an imprisoned CIA agent, dozens of Cuban political prisoners, and the remaining members of the Cuban Five, back to their homes. Settling their cases was only part of the negotiation that led to the announcement on December 17, 2014 that diplomatic relations would be restored.

Fourth, while the president kept his eyes on the big picture, he also kept learning. In his first term, we were often assured by a member of his National Security Council staff that Cuba was not such a big deal to the other nations of Latin America.

In 2012, our strongest allies in the region, including from conservative governments like Colombia, told the President they would boycott the next Summit of the Americas unless Cuba could attend. In 2015, just four months after Presidents Obama and Castro spoke to their publics about the coming rapprochement, they could meet in person at the Summit in Panama to discuss how the new relationship was going after the U.S. dropped its objections and Cuba got its seat at the table. By the time he delivered his 2016 State of the Union Address, President Obama was challenging Congress to lift the embargo “if you want to consolidate our leadership and credibility in the hemisphere.”

Fifth, by tackling this problem as he did, the President created a virtuous cycle in public opinion as measured nationally and in the Cuban American community.

According to the Gallup poll, when he took office in 2009, Cuba was viewed unfavorably by 60% of Americans against just 29% who held favorable views. After seven years of reforms, increased travel, diplomacy, and visible presidential leadership, Cuba is now viewed favorably by 54% of Americans, with unfavorable views falling from 60% down to 40%.

Of perhaps greater significance, support within the diaspora for normalization, according to recent research published by Bendixen & Amandi, leapt from 44% in December 2014 to 56% in just one year. Last year’s Sunshine State Survey found that Floridians of all stripes support diplomatic relations with Cuba at exactly the same levels.

By spreading out the reforms over 7 years, while handling Congress and controversy so steadily, learning and making adjustments along the way, the President won public consent for Cuba policy reforms and a trip to Havana that few of us could have expected.

“Many Americans,” the political scientist Jonathan Bernstein wrote in 2012, “would be skeptical of the idea that elected officials, presidents included, try to keep the promises they made on the campaign trail.” In this season of cynicism, that skepticism is off the charts.

Perhaps this is what is most remarkable about the trip that President Obama is about to begin: In 2007, he made bold promises to reform Cuba policy as a candidate for our nation’s highest office, and then did the unexpected. He kept his word.

Anyone watching him step off of Air Force One on Sunday should remember that.

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U.S. – Cuba Relations
On Tuesday, the Obama administration announced a number of significant regulatory changes related to Cuba. The new rules will make it significantly easier and more affordable for individual U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba, increase Cuba’s access to international markets, permit Cuban entities to carry out transactions in dollars, and allow Cuban citizens to earn salaries in the United States. This latter change will clear the way for Cuban baseball players to become Major Leaguers in the U.S. without having to give up their Cuban citizenship.

In a separate action, the U.S. government also removed Cuba from its list of countries deemed to have insufficient port security, a change that will clear the way for U.S. cruise ships and cargo vessels to travel back and forth, the Associated Press reported.

For more details on the new regulations, be sure to read the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control’s (OFAC) full announcement and its list of frequently asked questions about Cuba.

Cuba Eliminates Tax on U.S. Dollar, Havana Times

Cuba responded to the new rules permitting the use of dollars by cancelling the ten percent tax that it applies on U.S. dollars entering the country, Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said.

Changes in Cuba

A broad coalition, including the Center for Democracy in the Americas (publisher of this weekly news briefing) is working for changes in U.S.-Cuba policy. Eight members of our coalition helped produce this factsheet that focuses on changes taking place in Cuba, authorized by the government and propelled by the Cuban people.

Obama letter among first direct mail to Cuba in more than 50 years, Doug Stanglin,USA Today

This week marked the first time in more than fifty years that U.S. mail could be sent directly to Cuba. The U.S. Postal Service announced on Thursday that it now provides a full range of mail service to Cuba, including first-class letters, packages, and Priority Mail International. To mark the occasion, President Barack Obama sent a letter to a seventy-six year old Cuban pen-pal in the first batch of direct mail to Cuba in more than 50 years.

Culture Gap Impedes U.S. Business Efforts for Trade With Cuba, Victoria Burnett,New York Times

Fifteen months after the Obama administration announced the normalization of relations with Cuba, and American business leaders started flocking to the island, relatively few business deals have been signed. Beyond tourism, the U.S. and Cuba continue to have largely different economic visions for the future. Philip Peters, a partner at D17 Strategies, a consultancy in Washington, said that Cuba is “not going to rewrite the rule book [for American entrepreneurs].” Still, some American businesses have prospered: Airbnb began operating in Cuba in April; Sprint now has a roaming agreement with the Cuban state telecommunications company, ETECSA; and Cleber, the Alabama tractor company that plans to build a factory in the Mariel Special Development Zone, received a license last month.

Cuba changing, but only slowly, since Obama’s policy shift, Daniel Trotta, Reuters

In the past fifteen months, the Obama administration’s effort to normalize U.S. relations with Cuba has resulted in a 77% increase in U.S. travel to the island, numerous new regulations, and the first visit of a U.S. president to Cuba in almost ninety years. Despite this, some say that Cuba’s government has not fully reciprocated. “What is perceived on the outside as slow progress is really the way of Cubans assuring themselves of the trust that is necessary to be built,” says U.S. businessman Saul Berenthal of the Cleber tractor company. Market-style reforms on the island have had limited implementation, trade imports and exports remain tightly controlled, and communications and expression remain constrained. While Cuba’s businesses have benefitted from a 50% growth rate in the past year, business leaders in Cuba, such as restaurant owner Niuris Higueras are calling for greater access to U.S. goods and markets. “Cuba has already changed, but needs more… We need to link up with the U.S. market,” Higueras said.

AT&T, Starwood, Marriott Work on Cuba Deals Ahead of Obama Trip, NBC News

At least three major U.S. companies – AT&T, Starwood, and Marriott – are seeking to make major deals with Cuba as President Barack Obama prepares to visit Havana. AT&T is negotiating a mobile communications agreement with Cuba’s state telecoms monopoly ETECSA. Earlier this week, Verizon signed a similar agreement. Meanwhile, hotel and resort chains Starwood and Marriott are confident that they can soon announce plans to develop hotels in Cuba under their respective names, according to a source who was briefed by administration and company officials.

Klobuchar, Emmer to join Obama’s historic trip to Cuba, Allison Sherry, Star Tribune

Republican Rep. Tom Emmer (MN-6) and Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar (MN) will join President Obama on his historic trip to Cuba this weekend.. Both Emmer and Klobuchar are strong advocates of ending the trade embargo. Last year, Emmer introduced the anti-embargo Cuba Trade Act of 2015 in the House, while Klobuchar has led a bipartisan effort to introduce similar legislation in the Senate.  Senator Klobuchar and Rep. Emmer made their first trips to Cuba on delegations led by the Center for Democracy in the Americas in 2015. They will be part of a large group of lawmakers visiting Cuba, including House Democrats and Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona.

How to Go to Cuba Right Now, Victoria Burnett, New York Times

The new U.S. government regulations announced on Tuesday have made it easier for U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba on “people-to-people” trips. For the first time, U.S. citizens will no longer have to book travel to Cuba as part of a group.  Although these non-tourist individual travelers will still need to use a charter airline service at the present time, they will be able to book seats on carriers operating regularly-scheduled flights between Cuba and the United States when commercial service begins later this year.

In Cuba

On Major Lazer In Havana, Isabel C. Albee, Huffington Post

Isabel Albee, formerly an intern at the Center for Democracy in the Americas, describes her experience attending last week’s Diplo and Major Lazer concert in Havana. The event was the first major open-air concert in Cuba featuring U.S.-based artists since Cuba and the U.S. announced they would normalize relations in December 2014, and attracted a crowd of over 400,000 people. “The concert didn’t change Cuba, nor was it a sign of a changing Cuba,” writes Albee. “It was a sign of life in Havana, and it made young Cubans feel like they were part of the rest of the world.”

Diagnostican primer caso de transmisión autócton del virus del Zika (First Indigenous Case of Zika Diagnosed in Cuba), Granma

Cuba’s Ministry of Public Health has confirmed the first indigenous case of Zika virus on the island. The patient, a twenty-one year old woman in Central Havana, has been hospitalized at Freyre Andrade Hospital. This case comes weeks after a Venezuelan medical student in Cuba displayed symptoms of the Zika virus.

Week in Review: When will we know if the President’s trip was a success?

March 11, 2016

We’re going to get into a discussion of President Obama’s upcoming trip to Cuba, so please give the following observations a chance to breathe.During most of the Cold War, the speed of the arms race and the development of new weapons easily exceeded the ability of our diplomats to negotiate agreements to control them, which in turn exceeded the capacity of our politics to debate and approve them.

In this time, we live with a less threatening but ever present and concerning danger; that is, the news travels so much faster, and comes at us much more plentifully, than our capacity to absorb it. This, in turn, exceeds the ability of our politics to debate and understand how what is being reported will affect the way we understand our world.

Journalism figured this out years before the social media revolution accelerated the news cycle to warp speed.  They called it “instant analysis,” in which they interpreted reality the moment it began changing.  Nowadays, reporters and analysts and opinion mongers tell us what things mean before they even happen, and long before we can feel a change or interpret it for ourselves.

In this brief, we’ve succumbed to this tendency, from time to time, so we’re not too terribly pure when we point out others doing the same thing.  And here – yes, finally! – is how this tangent relates to the President’s visit to Havana which commences nine days from now.

As we have previously noted, the harshest critics of President Obama’s opening to Cuba have either already graded the trip a failure, or established a framework for trashing it ahead of time so they can quickly denounce it as it takes place.

Yes, we mean you, Investor’s Business Daily editorial board members, authors of “Obama’s Cuba Trip Showing Signs of Imploding.”  Yes, of course, we name you, The Washington Post, for writing that the president’s visit “will be an ignoble failure if he does not have a meaningful encounter (defined how?) with the island’s most important human rights activists.” The Post knows well the maxim, those who set the terms of the debate win it, but theirs is not the only metric for judging the President’s trip.

For starters, there could be progress even before the President sets off. This week, there were reports that the administration will announce changes in travel, trade and banking rules on March 17- which strikes us as a great way to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.

Once the President arrives, if Cubans respond positively to his presence on the island, as we expect they will, that will serve as a proxy referendum indicating Cuban public approval of President Castro’s decision to end his country’s position of hostility toward the U.S. government – and, that in itself, will be a big deal.

Then, there is the matter of what the two presidents plan to say and do about the state of bilateral relations going forward.

By the end of the trip, we fully expect that supporters of normalization will count the trip as a remarkable success, and those who hate the Obama opening will be unashamed in their criticism of the trip as an abject failure.

But, we think the impact of the trip should be measured by a different and better standard; namely, by January 2017 and February 2018 – once President Obama finishes his term and when President Castro has said he will step down – will their successors build on the rapprochement or act to reverse it?

This trip isn’t a one-off, it is part of a process; a process that has been unfolding since the Cold War, albeit gradually even glacially, but one that has picked up momentum since December 17, 2014 when the two leaders’ made public their decision to normalize our countries’ relations.

This process is far from complete. In the United States, the work of normalization will outlive President Obama’s term in office, and that is why his administration continues working to try and make the new policy irreversible. The process, we believe, is also taking place in Cuba, but is opaque for reasons we all understand.

In fact, both countries are playing a longer game than the instant analysts who interpret the news for us will ever be willing to play.

But, in ways we find very refreshing, teachable moments about U.S. policy are taking place that we think are very important. For example, the public is learning that:

  • The U.S. embargo prohibits book publishers in our country from producing, distributing, and selling books and education materials in the Cuban market.
  • The U.S. embargo imposes regulatory barriers on Cuba’s breakthrough medical treatments from reaching sick people in the United States who will die or live lesser lives without them.
  • The U.S. embargo not only makes it illegal for Americans to visit the island as tourists, but also prevents U.S. hoteliers from building or operating hotels in Cuba to provide lodging for them.
  • Under the U.S. embargo, it continues to be a goal of our foreign policy to overthrow the Cuban system.

As these and other facts about our policy are becoming more broadly known as a result of the President’s trip, public officials and others in the U.S. are working harder, and more visibly, to change them.  Senator Amy Klobuchar is appealing to the administration to open up Cuba to investments by U.S. companies. MEDICC is offering policy ideas so that our people can lead safer, healthier lives, and publishers are arguing that “the U.S. trade embargo is harmful to book culture and runs counter to American ideals of free expression.”Most of all, the public is hearing in the plainest terms we’ve heard expressed a new point of view, a presidential challenge to the very philosophical or intellectual basis that have kept these harmful restrictions in place, which are so antithetical to how we see ourselves, far too long.

This is what deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said this week. “The fact of the matter is we don’t have any expectation that Cuba is going to transform its political system in the near term…Even if we got 10 dissidents out of prison, so what? What’s going to bring change is having Cubans have more control over their own lives.”

Should these ideas have the attention and space to enter the discourse, and if they’re given a chance to permeate the discourse over the next twelve to twenty-four months, we think the President’s trip will be judged by history to be a huge success, because the new policy can’t really become permanent until the debate about it is reframed.

We’ll just have wait and see.
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Week in Review: To Giddy Obama Critics saying “We told you so,” we say: Not so fast.

March 4, 2016

Dear Friends:

President Obama is planning to visit Cuba for a host of very good reasons.

His visit will evoke an outpouring of gratitude from the Cuban people which, by itself, will reverberate across the island for a long time to come.

In between his arrival and departure, the President can consolidate and expand his historic opening of U.S. policy- by speaking to the highest aspirations of the Cuban people, listening to their views, highlighting the benefits of his new policy to U.S. interests, and encouraging Cuba’s leadership to use his remaining time in office to resolve obstacles to full normalization.

From the moment his trip was announced, those with the most invested in the Cold War policies of the past established metrics for the trip to frame it as a failure before it even took place.

Small wonder fierce critics like Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-27) could barely contain their excitement upon hearing news that an advance trip by Secretary of State John Kerry was cancelled due to disagreements between the governments on the subject of human rights.

What happened?  The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that Mr. Kerry scratched a visit to Havana for “a human rights dialogue” and consultations to lay the groundwork for the President’s trip later this month.

Sources told Reuters “the trip had been canceled because U.S. and Cuban officials were deep in negotiations on issues including which dissidents Obama might see in Havana and that a trip in the timeframe Kerry had mentioned was not seen as constructive.

An official also told the Los Angeles Times, “there was not ‘common agreement’ between the State Department and Cuban counterparts on aspects of Kerry’s trip, including his ability to meet with dissidents.”

John Kirby, the State Department spokesman, said in a statement, “The secretary is still interested in visiting in the near future, and we are working with our Cuban counterparts and our embassy to determine the best time frame.”

What’s really going on?  The Los Angeles Times was probably right when it wrote, the “back and forth over human rights is another sign of how prickly U.S.-Cuba relations remain despite the restoration of diplomatic ties.”

Just how prickly?  Earlier this week, Antony Blinken, the Deputy Secretary of State, told the U.N. Human Rights Council, “We are increasingly concerned about the government’s use of short-term detentions of peaceful activists,” and added, “”We call on the Cuban government to stop this tactic as a means of quelling peaceful protest.”

According to state media, Cuban diplomats reacted with indignation to Blinken’s remarks, leading one veteran observer to suggest, the Cubans wanted to put Kerry in his place, and so suggested that the timing of his advance trip was not convenient.

The cancellation could reflect anger that will pass, a persistent Cuban resistance to interference by the U.S. in its internal affairs, or disagreements inside official Cuba over how much to give on the core question of human rights.

It could be some or all of these not to mention the number of plates Cuban officials are spinning given the upcoming visits by President Obama and by Mr. Kerry’s European Union counterpart, Federica Mogherini, trying to wrap up a Cuba-EU framework agreement, followed by a meeting of the Cuban Communist Party’s 7th Congress – all in a two-month period.

So, when Obama’s critics say, we told you so, and reports suggest that the Kerry cancellation could put the President’s trip “on the rocks,” are they right?

We don’t think so.  It’s no state secret that human rights represent a profound area of disagreement between Cuba’s government and the United States. The obstacle to progress has been our reluctance to engage Cuba in respectful diplomacy to sort these differences out.

Mr. Kerry is coming to Cuba with President Obama.  He has already spoken with Bruno Rodriquez, Cuba’s foreign minister, as the Miami Herald reported this afternoon, and both reiterated their commitment to a successful Obama trip.

We agree with Bill LeoGrande who wrote in the New York Times the President’s critics “have it backward: Mr. Obama has not given up on human rights in order to pursue normalization; he is pursuing normalization as a path to improving human rights.”

Of course, his harshest critics want President Obama to be humiliated by Cuba’s hardliners or to cancel his trip.  Fourteen months of diplomacy has taken us far farther than the fifty plus years of sanctions and isolation, their preferred policy, ever could.  As Chris Sabatini wrote so aptly, this trip is “Obama’s chance to turn the page on that sad history and to demonstrate that Cuba’s future is for the Cubans to decide.”

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