Senior Moments: 4 Key Reasons to Think About Cardinal Ortega’s Retirement

April 29, 2016

A week after former President Fidel Castro gave his valedictory speech, signaling the end of an era in Cuba’s political life, the Vatican announced that Pope Francis accepted Cardinal Jaime Ortega’s resignation as Archbishop of Havana, a milestone in the life of Cuba’s Catholic Church.

He will be succeeded by Juan de la Caridad García Rodríguez, the archbishop of the city of Camagüey, as the new archbishop of Cuba’s capital.

For us, the retirement of the Cuban Catholic Church leader who, as Reuters put it, “became an influential figure where he was once despised and played a key role in the détente with the United States,” deserves a moment of reflectionfor these four key reasons.

He was the real deal

Cardinal Ortega, born in a sugar mill town in Matanzas Province, was ordained a priest in 1964, a moment that Cuba scholar Meg Crahan remembered as a challenging time for Cuba’s Catholics, when religious figures joined the exodus of other Cubans off the island and official discrimination was visited upon individuals “who made religion a way of life.”

Ortega, as the Washington Post wrote “was sent to a reeducation camp and forced to do manual labor, as the church struggled in a state that had declared itself officially atheist.” He was there for eight months.

After serving as a parish priest, he became bishop of Pinar del Río in 1978, and was appointed Archbishop of Havana in 1981. His rise in leadership coincided with gradual changes in the government’s attitude toward the Church which he, in turn, helped leverage to create greater space for its religious and social missions.

During the Special Period, a time of privation on the island after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Church used this larger space, as Meg Crahan wrote, to confront its failure to identify strongly enough with the struggle for social justice, before and after the Cuban Revolution.

As Ortega helped bring the Church in from the cold, it came to have the greatest influence and reach since 1959, as the New York Times put it, receiving permission to build more churches and conduct public festivals, and becoming a space for dialogue about Cuba’s politics and future. Its growing role now includes, as the Miami Herald said, “helping people with all aspects of life, from providing soup kitchens and disaster relief to business training.”

He made significant contributions to human rights in Cuba and reconciliation with the U.S.

Cardinal Ortega turned a dialogue with President Raúl Castro on the harassment of the Ladies in White, a group of wives and mothers formed to support family members serving long prison terms, into a process that led to the release of dozens of political prisoners including all the remaining dissidents imprisoned following a 2003 crackdown known as the Black Spring.

He also played a vital supporting role in the behind-the-scenes drama that led to the reestablishment of ties between Cuba and the United States.  In 2014, as Peter Kornbluh and William LeoGrande recount in their book Back Channel to Cuba, Cardinal Ortega hand-delivered letters from Pope Francis to Cuba’s President Raúl Castro and, in a secret visit to Washington, D.C., to President Obama offering his pastoral support for the diplomatic process.

Philip Peters, head of the Cuba Research Center, told Reuters, “It’s fair to say that the church’s role was pivotal, and Cardinal Ortega was at the center of it… He interceded quietly with both presidents, with Pope Francis, with U.S. senators, and others, to press both governments to re-establish relations.” As Carlos Saladrigas, of the Cuba Study Group, told the New York Times, “Ortega will go into the Cuban history books as a key player… He has pushed the boundaries very far.”

His courage made him a target of character assassins in the U.S.

After the Cardinal succeeded in getting political prisoners released in Cuba – a major goal of U.S. policy – domestic opponents of improved bilateral relations attacked Cardinal Ortega for engaging in negotiations rather than confrontation with Cuba’s government.

As the Washington Post reported, the Cardinal was called “a bootlicker” by a Florida-based columnist. Even the head of Radio and TV Martí, Carlos García-Pérez, published an article on his U.S. government financed website, in which he wrote”This lackey attitude demonstrates a profound lack of understanding and compassion toward the human reality of these children of God.”

Yet, as Harvard Professor Jorge Domínguez observed at the time, “Who freed the political prisoners in Cuba? Not the European Union. Not the U.S. government. And not Radio and TV Martí. It was Ortega who convinced Raúl Castro to let them out.”

Even this week, Babalú Blog ran a crude cartoon labeling him “a Castro snitch with or without his priestly vestment,” proving no good deed goes unpunished even five years later.

His successor has big slippers to fill

His successor, Archbishop García, has been Archbishop of Camagüey since 2002. Since serving as a priest, he “has worked quietly to help rebuild the Cuban church, physically and spiritually,” and “has been described as a bishop in the style of Pope Francis,” according to the National Catholic Reporter.

His reputation as a man with a common touch was referenced in a statement by the Standing Committee of the Cuban Conference of Catholic Bishops which read, in part, “As Pope Francis characterized him, one can say that the man named Archbishop of Havana is a shepherd who ‘has the smell of his sheep.'”

Archbishop García has praised Cardinal Ortega’s legacy, and says “we will try to continue his work,” though it is not yet clear whether he will he will carry forward Cardinal Ortega’s diplomatic work.

At age 67, he enters the arena at an exceptional and historic moment. As Carlos Saladrigas commented to the New York Times this week, “Clearly everyone hopes that he will continue to push things along.” Read the rest of this entry »

On Stage at the Gran Teatro and the Party Congress

April 22, 2016

Last weekend, on the eve of a visit by the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, we sat in a performance hall named for Cuba’s eternal Alicia Alonso, with hundreds of Cubans, their hands filled with programs and smartphones, and waited for the curtain to rise for a premier performance by the dance company led by Carlos Acosta.

Here, in a cathedral that honors the Cuban ballerina and choreographer – who danced with George Balanchine in New York, who fled the Batista dictatorship to dance Giselle in Russia; who returned home with support from her revolutionary government to transform her ballet company into the National Ballet of Cuba – we applauded Acosta’s return from abroad.

Born in Havana, Acosta danced at the National Ballet School of Cuba under Alicia Alonso and, after leaving Cuba, landed roles as a guest principal artist with leading ballet companies around the world. On the heels of his classical training, he brought to the Gran Teatro’s stage in Havana a program that was exciting, breathtaking, and new.

The choreography, music, art and athleticism of the dancers – even as they swept past the classical conventions of what marked the highly accomplished Cuban ballet – ennobled the stage and Ms. Alonso herself. In this time – as in her time – the program was an immense expression of what Cubans have accomplished when they aspire to do great things.

As we sat alongside Cubans in this majestic setting, Acosta’s dancers, heirs to a fortune created before their birth, by sharing their portion of the nation’s patrimony with visitors from the United States, showed the cohesive power of culture to bring people together.

Culture has enormous power. It cannot replace diplomacy, but collaboration in the arts and humanities, between the U.S. and Cuba, can play an important role in moving it forward.

As we saw the dancers perform “I regret nothing” to the music of Edith Piaf, and “The End of Time,” with music by Rachmaninoff, we thought of a party gathering elsewhere in Havana, and were reminded that even the highest aspirations can be tripped up by the awkward dance of politics.

You could read the headlines crowning the coverage of the 7th Congress of the Cuban Communist Party by the international press that way. “Cuba’s aging leaders to remain in power years longer,” one said. “Cuba pops the bubble of high expectations,” read another.

These and other reports documented the disappointment voiced by Cubans on the record that the congress produced no dramatic economic reforms or senior leadership retirements. “Older people should retire,” a printing company worker said. Some commentators in the U.S., of course, decided this was evidence that President Obama’s reforms had again failed to change Cuba.

But, other analysis revealed the deeper nuance of the dance.

As Fulton Armstrong notes, President Castro walked a tightrope all weekend “between pressing harder for change and reassuring party conservatives that the basic tenets of the revolution will not be touched.” For example, President Castro –

  • Confirmed that the merger of Cuba’s two currencies remains a priority of the country’s economic policy despite its threat of inflation and disruption to the country’s supports.
  • Affirmed that foreign investment would play an increasing role in Cuba’s economy because, in Castro’s words, it promotes “exchanges of technology and management systems about which the country knows practically nothing.”
  • Asserted the Cuban state would continue to shed activities “not decisive to the development of the nation.”
  • Praised the role of Cuba’s growing private and cooperative sector and called “the immense majority of the entrepreneurs…revolutionary and patriotic.”
  • Conceded, as he did during the 2011 Congress, that the fight against racism that impedes the rise of Afro-Cubans to leadership must continue, and criticized the failure to promote more women to decision-making positions for slowing Cuba’s potential.
  • And blamed the bureaucracy for inertia and not encouraging “initiative and entrepreneurship.”

At the same time, President Raúl Castro used the occasion to restate his rejection of capitalism and multi-party democracy, and to warn against diplomatic overtures from the U.S., whose real goal is regime change.

It is true that a gathering of the faithful, where former President Fidel Castro told Party members he would soon turn 90 and he would be “joining the rest,” making this likely one of the last times he’d give an address before the Party, nobody moved to turn his legacy upside down.

For those of us in the U.S. who support the normalization process, it would be better, as Fulton Armstrong observed this morning, if Cuba did more through “regulatory measures encouraging business deals (with U.S. firms) that will give momentum to embargo-lifting initiatives in the U.S. Congress.”

And, as Peter Kornbluh, coauthor of Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana, told National Public Radio, “Cuba has no choice – and Raúl Castro’s leadership has been focused on this – but to attempt to modernize and evolve economically.”

Finding solutions to Cuba’s deepest problems without alarming its most determined hardliners will require choreography on the part of President Castro, of a kind that would make Carlos Acosta proud. Now that the Party Congress has cleared the stage, President Castro will have to reconnect with the larger Cuban audience that is waiting for and wanting more.

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The new, more balanced debate on U.S. policy

April 15, 2016

Five years ago, after President Obama restored people-to-people travel and made regulatory changes to permit virtually any airport in the U.S. to serve the Cuban market, Senators Marco Rubio (FL) and Bob Menéndez (NJ) decided to pounce.

They wrote an amendment to ground the new flights which they planned to attach to a funding bill for the Federal Aviation Administration. Had it become law, delegations filled with legally qualified educational, religious, cultural, and humanitarian delegations would have had no way to fly to the island.

Rather than having the Senators ground the flights, the Senate grounded the Senators’ amendment. It never came up for a vote. This was a surprising, seemingly solitary defeat, for the two politically powerful Cuban American legislators.

Fast-forward five years to this very week, to the United States Senate, to Senator Rubio and, yes, to the Federal Aviation Administration’s reauthorization bill. On Wednesday, he took to the Senate floor to speak on behalf of another amendment that he planned to tack on to the FAA bill to stop Cuban refugees from gaining eligibility for welfare benefits the moment they set foot on U.S. soil.

This amendment didn’t fly either. On Thursday, as the Miami Herald reported, the Republican-controlled Senate refused even to hold a vote on the Rubio proposal. Exasperated but without an apparent trace of irony, Rubio responded by saying, “This is why people are so sick of politics.”

Far from being politics as usual, Rubio’s defeat at the hands of a Senate disinterested in voting on his amendment is emblematic of a sea-change as the country reassesses our policy toward Cuba.

For decades, Cold War warriors and the Cuban-American community possessed outsized power to determine the direction of U.S.-Cuba relations. That is why, long after its strategic sell-by date, the U.S. embargo continues to impose significant restrictions on the right of Americans to visit Cuba and the ability of U.S. corporations to do business in Cuba.

The perception of the Cuban-American lock on Florida’s electoral votes outlived the reality of it, as President Obama’s victories in the 2008 and 2012 general elections demonstrated. Slowly – like during the Senate’s 2011 debate on the FAA bill – and then suddenly, since President Obama’s decisive changes in U.S. policy were announced in December 2014, perception and reality have started to merge.

It’s a different time when Cuban American legislators in both houses of the U.S. Congress, from both political parties, admit to feeling left out of the conversation on Cuba: see, for example, “Once mighty, Miami’s political guard left out of conversation on Cuba,” Miami Herald, April 8th, 2016.

Meanwhile, Cuban American moderates who were subjected to violence, marginalization, intimidation, even loss of employment opportunities by hardliners, but not silenced by them, can’t help but celebrate the agency and voice they enjoy in this more balanced time.

“I’m happy,” one such moderate, Max Castro, wrote this week, “Happy because they can no longer veto change. Happy because they can no longer dictate a policy based on allowing the Cuban people to go blind in order to poke out the eye of Fidel or Raúl.”

The big changes in Miami are not taking place in isolation. The Des Moines Register editorialized this week in favor of lifting the embargo. It cited a news report that with so many U.S. tourists visiting the island, Cuba risked running out of beer. It went on to say, “Cuba seems forever changed, despite Congressional resistance in lifting the 55-year-old trade embargo. Our representatives should remove the barriers, because the benefits would change Iowa, too.”

It’s a different time when a big newspaper concedes that Cuba not only has cigars (and beer, if it doesn’t run out), but also medical breakthroughs like the treatment Cuba developed to cut down on the incidence of amputations resulting from diabetic foot ulcers.

It’s a different time when a cross-section of Americans voters – Democrats, Independents, and Republicans – support diplomatic relations and ending the trade embargo, as the CBS-New York Times poll reported last month.

It’s a different time when the President’s Committee for the Arts and Humanities – including cultural figures like Usher, Joshua Bell, Alfre Woodard, Dave Matthews, and Smokey Robinson, as well as the leadership of the Smithsonian, the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities – can announce a cultural mission to Cuba (with an itinerary planned with the help of CDA), to advance the normalization process, without worrying that a chorus of boo-birds and fanatics will shower them with press releases or threats of Congressional hearings.

It’s a different time when it’s okay for the administration to criticize Cuba vigorously for a policy that allows Cuban Americans to visit the island by air, but not by sea, and to call out the Carnival Cruise lines for not selling them tickets – while also containing the controversy to keep diplomacy on track.

The point here is that times have changed. What we celebrate is a new normal where everyone gets his or her say, no one is dispossessed, and values core to U.S. foreign policy like human rights are still represented – without all of us being trapped in Cold War time warp or a rigged debate over U.S.-Cuba relations in which only the minority wins.

Acknowledging this change in the distribution of political power is essential as we reinvigorate the debate on ending the embargo. Here, the majority finally rules.

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Start the embargo debate now

April 8, 2016

The proclamation signed by President Kennedy in 1962 instituting the U.S. embargo against Cuba had a muscular beginning.

Vesting enormous powers in the hands of the President, it declared that the United States was prepared “to take all necessary actions to promote national hemispheric security by isolating the present Government of Cuba and thereby reducing the threat posed by its alignment with the communist powers.”

The blockade, as William LeoGrande recently reminded us, became the most comprehensive regime of economic sanctions against any country in the world.  Over the years, Kennedy’s embargo – a harsh but manipulable tool of U.S. foreign policy – became, in the words of Fidel Castro, “a tangled ball of yarn.”

Cuba sanctions in the hands of Congress – like a hammer in the hands of a child who discovers that everything is a nail – appeared seemingly everywhere; from travel to trade to foreign aid, to food security, trying to stop anything and everything that could put hard currency in Cuba’s treasury.

When good strategy might have occurred to us – in the form of drawing Cuba closer when the Soviet Union withdrew and left its economy near collapse, hotter heads and Cold Warriors in Washington prevailed.  Congress codified a long list of sanctions in the Cuban Democracy and Helms-Burton acts, and tried to turn the screws tighter.

Still, Cuba’s government remains in power, unwilling to bend to Washington’s will.

It’s hardly news that the embargo failed; in a study of U.S. sanctions applied on 174 occasions from World War I to 2006, sanctions only partially accomplished their political goal a third of the time.  In Cuba, they never got to first base.

And yet, the embargo remains in place, under President Obama, after his heroic efforts to partially peel it back through the exercise of his executive authority; after his historic trip to Havana last month; after saying in his moving speech, “What the United States was doing was not working…The embargo was only hurting the Cuban people instead of helping them,” even after he reprised his call to Congress to lift the embargo.

The debate about the embargo – do we repeal it because it didn’t work, as the President believes, or as the Miami Herald likes to say, until the Cuban government earns it, is falsely framed, because it focuses only on the ends we are trying to achieve rather than the means we have used to achieve them.

The goal of our policy has been to make Cubans so hungry, so isolated from their families abroad, so unable to earn a living, so miserable, that they’d take to the streets to confront their government.  In the course of maintaining this worthless, ineffective embargo, year after year, we lost sight of the damage we were causing to the people who were the supposed beneficiaries of our policy.

It is perfectly understandable to do follow-up on the President’s trip, and think about – as we do – the steps we can all take to protect his reforms and make them irreversible.

But, let’s not delay thinking about what could be done today to prepare for ending the embargo completely; if not through action by this Congress, as CDA allies Rep. Emmer, Rep. Castor, and Sen. Klobuchar have proposed, then by the next one.

Another Congress will be seated in 2017, but there’s nothing to lose and much to gain, by reinvigorating this debate now.  We will not try and offer the answers here, but several sensible ideas come to mind.

Normalization is good for the U.S. economy, and the public needs to hear that.  The President could convene a Cuba Trade Summit at the White House enabling the U.S. companies – who’ve lined up to make deals in Cuba – to remind policymakers and the press that doing business in Cuba, for the vast majority of our companies, remains illegal, and use this forum to make a loud, persuasive case that the embargo should end.

Further reforms will also be good for Cuba’s economy and its people.  As Gary Hufbauer has proposed in his roadmap for economic normalization, the President could allow Cuban sugar into the U.S. Sugar Re-export Program and boost Cuba’s export earnings without inciting a big domestic squabble among our producers.  He could set in motion permanent normal trade relations with Cuba by issuing a finding under the Jackson-Vanik amendment recognizing that President Raúl Castro has ended travel restrictions on Cuba’s people.

If the administration wants to clear the way for Cuba to move further, faster on updating its economy, and recognize its successes to date in reducing its foreign debts, it can signal the International Financial Institutions, as Cuban economist Ricardo Torres and Richard Feinberg, a U.S. expert, suggested, that we will support as much interaction with Cuba as its leadership wishes to have.

Last, we think the President should take a swing at the sanctions regime itself.  As Gary Hufbauer says, the Helms-Burton law contains waiver authority the president can use to drop sanctions.  He should use it.  Stephen Heifetz argued the same thing, in a New York Times piece last year titled, “Sanctions Worked, Congress.  Let them die.”

There’s a case to be made against much of Helms-Burton, as we suggested in the wake of the Supreme Court’s passport case ruling relating to diplomatic recognition, that the restrictions in Helms-Burton on the president’s authority to revoke the embargo are unconstitutional.  He can challenge them.

Pew and other polling organizations have found time and again, since Mr. Obama made his sharp departure from the Cold War policies of predecessors dating back to President Kennedy that ending the Cuba embargo and modernizing the policy have broad public support.

This is the moment to leverage it.  We think these new policies are popular not only because the old ones failed, and not just because Cuba has become a different place in the American mindset so long after the Cold War.  They’re popular because they reflect the presidency as a vital center of action at a time when the system embodies the opposite.  The reforms are a much needed jolt to our system.  Ending the embargo will be even better.

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Reflecting back, proceeding forward

April 1, 2016

After celebrating President Obama’s historic visit to Cuba, and his complex but hopeful address that asked both countries to leave the past behind; after enjoying the sight of the historicos, the Rolling Stones, belting out “Satisfaction” from the stage of the Ciudad Deportiva, we are reminded that normalization is a work in progress; that change in the foreign policies of the United States and Cuba of the magnitude championed by Presidents Obama and Castro require both memory and modesty to get us from where we are to where we’d like to be.

Less than a year ago, when Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez spoke to the press together before the flag-raising at Cuba’s embassy in Washington, Mr. Rodriguez emphasized that “lifting of the blockade, the return of the illegally occupied territory of Guantanamo, as well as the full respect for Cuban sovereignty” was “crucial to be able to move towards the normalization of relations.”

Less than two weeks ago, when President Obama and President Raul Castro spoke to the press together, Mr. Castro emphasized that removal of the U.S. embargo will be the essential to normalize bilateral relations, and, he continued, it will also be “necessary to return the territory illegally occupied by Guantanamo Naval Base.”  He said, as well, that “Other policies (that challenge Cuba’s sovereignty) should also be abolished for normal relations to develop between the United States and Cuba.”

Against this backdrop, it should have come as no surprise that Fidel Castro, Cuba’s former President, would write in a Reflection titled “Brother Obama,” a fierce defense of Cuba’s sovereignty, and an equally fierce call not to let loose of a past that lives so actively in the Cuban mind, his and many others.

While many U.S. commentators fixated on Fidel Castro’s tone and its contrast with the forward leaning words of President Obama, it is important to place his remarks in context (Mr. Castro published his statement after the president’s visit concluded) and to remember what he said and left unsaid once the visit was over. He neither sought to scuttle President Obama’s visit beforehand, nor did he criticize the deepening economic, political, and scientific contacts between Cuba and the U.S. under the new policy of mutual engagement.

His themes in counterpoint to the U.S. president’s objectives bespoke the traditional aims and principles of Cuban foreign policy.  His reading of our shared past – one he helped define for more than five decades – was as resolute as President Obama’s recitation of, and belief in, the American canon and creed.

In short, Fidel Castro did not use his pen to derail normalization, but he did remind people on both sides of the Florida Straits that making peace with long-time enemies is an endeavor to be undertaken thoughtfully; or, as our many Cuban friends like to say “just as porcupines make love; carefully.”

The real surprise is that some in our country were surprised by what he said, or that the actions implied by President Obama’s speech would be met with reactions of equal force in Havana.

If there were greater trust, what President Obama said in his speech at Havana’s Gran Teatro, “El futuro de Cuba tiene que estar en las manos del pueblo cubano“-“the future of Cuba must be in the hands of the Cuban people,” would have been more broadly accepted.

In Cuba, the meeting of the 7th Congress of the Cuban Communist Party is swiftly approaching.  The last Congress, which met in 2011, set Cuba on a path to revise its economic model, including the contested decision to rely at times on market forces, and on small businesses, for some but not all of Cuba’s job creation going forward.  Five years later, the Party is reconvening, but it has so far left Cubans uncertain of where it is heading next.

As the Associated Press noted this week, “Days after President Barack Obama’s historic visit, the leaders of Cuba’s Communist Party are under highly unusual public criticism from their own ranks for imposing new levels of secrecy on the future of social and economic reforms.” In fact, alongside the elder Castro’s “Brother Obama” blog, was another article that addressed a behind the scenes debate that is now roiling in public that included criticisms of the Party for a lack of open discussion before the upcoming Party Congress. The unsigned article said these divisions were “a sign of the democracy and public participation that are intrinsic characteristics of the socialism that we’re constructing.”

There are vast differences in our systems and institutions, but we should relate to Cuba’s uncertainty about the way forward with this degree of modesty.  Here in the U.S., we won’t know until after the November election and the convening of the 115th Congress next January whether President Obama’s policy of engagement with Cuba will regress back to our Cold War past or be enhanced by legislative action replacing his executive reforms with substantive legislation to repeal the trade embargo or the ban on travel.

As his second term draws to a close, President Obama has made it a priority to make the normalization process irreversible. But, as we have observed in both countries, the Cold War is tough to bury. While it remains fresh in the minds of those who lived it, it is no longer the dominant narrative. Dr. Juan Triana Cordoví, an economist and writer for OnCuba, echoed this sentiment. In detailing his experience at the Rolling Stones concert surrounded by his fellow Cubans he wrote, “They haven’t, and neither have I, forgotten the past is a part of our story, but we were all there, enjoying the present and looking to the future.”

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