Week in Review: To Giddy Obama Critics saying “We told you so,” we say: Not so fast.

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.”

In Memoriam

On March 3, 2016, Berta Lidia Cáceres, renowned Honduran environmental and indigenous peoples’ rights leader, was murdered in Honduras. The murder, which has sparked both local and international outrage, occurred when Cáceres and a Mexican environmentalist who was staying with her were shot. While her Mexican counterpart survived, Cáceres’s murder is being denounced as a particularly shameful development in Honduras – a country that is currently ranked most deadly in the world for environmental activism. Despite the numerous threats and obstacles she faced over the years, Cáceres remained committed to environmental justice and the protection of marginalized indigenous communities. In 1993, she co-founded Consejo Civico de Organizaciones Populares e Indigenes de Honduras (Copinh) to protect the Lenca community from having their lands jeopardized by mining and hydroelectric interests. In April 2015, Cáceres was awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for her efforts to organize grassroots opposition to the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam. CDA joins U.S. Ambassador to Honduras James D. Nealon in condemning the murder, and joins JASS (Just Associates) in its call for an end to impunity and the launch of an independent and transparent investigation.

Our Recommendations

Obama’s Trip to Cuba, Michael E. Parmly, New York Times
Michael Parmly, who served as Chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana under President George W. Bush, penned this response to a February 19, 2016 New York Times editorial titled, “An American President in Cuba,” which was critical of President Obama’s upcoming visit to the island. Mr. Parmly argues that the president’s trip should not be centered on politics.  Parmly observes that conversations about human rights and politics are important, but the trip is also an opportunity for President Obama to solidify from his policy while also encouraging connectivity and openness.

Obama and Cuba: Should he stay or should he go?, Christopher Sabatini, Latin America Goes Global
Christopher Sabatini argues that President Obama’s upcoming visit to Cuba is an excellent opportunity to improve U.S. – Cuba relations and make it clear to the Cuban people that their future and the future of their country is in their hands. While the U.S. and Cuban governments continue to have major disagreements on human rights issues, the two have made notable progress on migration, human trafficking, anti-narcotics, and the environment. Sabatini writes that, “President Obama has an historic opportunity to speak to the Cuban people about shared values and vision of Cubans and Americans alike, beyond the Cold War ideology and antagonism that has divided us for more than a half century….This 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.”

Obama’s Long Game for Cubans’ Rights, William M. LeoGrande, New York Times
William LeoGrande responds to recent criticisms that President Obama is traveling to Cuba despite a lack of progress on human rights issues on the island. He argues that while concerns about human rights are valid, Obama is not ignoring them. Rather, the president is playing the “long game” by using his upcoming trip as a platform to publicly and privately call for greater action from Cuba’s government, draw attention to pro-American values and outreach, and to strengthen commercial ties between the United States and Cuba that will ultimately improve Cubans’ quality of life and rights.

President Obama to attend Tampa Bay Rays-Cuba game in Havana, CBS News
On March 22, during his two-day trip to Cuba, President Obama will attend a baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and Cuba’s National Team. The game will be a highlight of Obama’s historic trip, and will also mark the first time a Major League Baseball team will play in Cuba since the Baltimore Orioles played there in 1999.

The Business Case for a Sustainable Cuba: Part One, Part Two, Julia Sagebien and Eric Leenson, Huffington Post
This two-part feature by Julia Sagebien and Eric Leenson seeks to answer an important, yet often-overlooked question: How can Cuba achieve an optimum balance between business competitiveness, economic well-being, and the preservation of long-held social values, while also building Cuban sustainability? Part one, titled “Five Sectors Ready to Go,” explores the different ways in which 1) sustainable tourism, 2) organic agricultural exports, 3) renewable energy, 4) coastal zone development (tourism, ports, waste management, fishing, urban development, etc.), and 5) mining can be developed to fit this policy goal. Part two explores two possible paths forward for Cuba’s reindustrialization. The first option is a path of nineteenth-century-style industrialization, manufacturing and niche exports, while option two involves a path to high worker wages, renewable energy, and sustainable science and production methods.

U.S. airlines in race for commercial service to Cuba, Mimi Whitefield, Miami Herald
The first round of bidding for U.S. airlines interested in flying to Cuba closed at 5:00pm on Wednesday. Airlines submitted proposals to the Department of Transportation for the approved 110 daily flights to Cuba open to business. According to the State Department, this number may increase over time depending on demand. Top bidders include American Airlines, JetBlue, Delta Airlines, and Silver Airlines. The majority of flights will operate out of Florida, particularly Miami, Tampa, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, Fort Myers, and Jacksonville but airlines are also proposing flights from New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport and Atlanta.

Rolling Stones Announce Free Concert in Cuba!, Rolling Stones
The Rolling Stones have confirmed they will perform a free, live concert in Havana, Cuba on March 25th. This will be the first open-air concert by a British rock band in Cuba’s history, and the band expressed great excitement about the upcoming “landmark event.” The band will also spearhead a musician-to-musician initiative to donate musical instruments and equipment to Cuban artists.

Cuba reporta el primer caso del virus del Zika en el paí­s (First Zika Case Reported in Cuba), CNN Español
State media outlet, Granma, has confirmed the first case of Zika in Cuba: a twenty-one year old Venezuelan medical student. The Zika virus, much like dengue fever and chikungunya, is transmitted by Aedes aegypti mosquitoes in tropical climates. There is no reliable vaccine or treatment for the virus, which has rapidly spread across Latin America and the Caribbean since 2014. Cuba’s government has taken extensive steps, including deploying 9000 members of the army and ordering widespread fumigation in order to prevent the virus from spreading. Most recent reports state that the case is isolated, with the patient in quarantine and her co-travelers showing no symptoms of the virus.

Presidente de Austria visitará Cuba (Austrian President to visit Cuba), Martha Ríos, Radio Habana Cuba
Austrian President, Heinz Fischer, visited Cuba this week. Fischer arrived in Cuba on March 1. Upon his arrival, Fischer attended a conference at the University of Havana, where he discussed matters related to Austria and the European Union. During a Cuba-Austria Business Forum hosted on Wednesday as part of the trip, Cuba’s vice president Ricardo Cabrisas and Dr. Rudolf Scholten, CEO of Austria’s Control Bank signed an agreement on the treatment of Cuba’s debt. The agreement reflects the deal made with the Ad-Hoc Group of the Paris Club last December, in which the Paris Club will write off the $8.5 billion of interest accumulated on Cuba’s $11 billion debt, while Cuba will pay $2.6 billion over the next 18 years.

Recommended Viewing

CBS “This Morning” on Monday, March 7 at 7:00am EST.
CBS host Charlie Rose will report live from Havana, Cuba on matters of U.S. – Cuba relations and President Obama’s upcoming visit to the island.

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