Enter Peace

June 24, 2016

As Britons were hitting the exits from the European Union, the world had a moment to appreciate the vote of confidence in peace cast by Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos, as he closed the “End of Conflict and Cessation of Hostilities” ceremonies at the Laguito Convention Center in Havana on Thursday.

“This is a peace of everyone, without exception,” he said. “This is the peace we have been dreaming about.” He then shook hands with “Timonchenko,” the FARC’s guerrilla commander Timoleón Jiménez, who said so powerfully, “May this be the last day of war.”

While the Washington Post emphasized the agreement announced in Havana is not a final accord, it “essentially amounts to an end to the fighting. It means the two sides have worked through some of the most sensitive aspects of their negotiations, particularly the nuts and bolts of getting 7,000 heavily armed FARC fighters to come down from the mountains, lay down their guns and begin a transition to civilian life under the protection of Colombia’s security forces, their lifelong enemies.”

The deal effectively brings to an end a horribly violent 52-year old conflict that killed as many as 220,000 people, Euro News said. The final agreement is expected to be signed July 20th.

This is, of course, an astounding, long-sought achievement by the FARC and Colombia’s government, with the Colombian people the principal beneficiaries. But, it is also an occasion to consider the role that Cuba played in the talks, which began in Havana in November of 2012, and what this process says about the normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States currently underway.

When the ceremony took place, Cuba, along with Norway, was recognized for the role it played as co-guarantor. Thursday, for example, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon congratulated both countries for devoting “considerable diplomatic skills” to the peace process, as did U.S.

Secretary of State John Kerry. At a background briefing, a senior official at the State Department reiterated that “as the host and facilitator of these talks, we believe that Cuba played an important role.”

What was that role? Colombia’s former High Commissioner for Peace, Daniel García-Peña, said yesterday on Democracy Now, “The Cubans have, from the very beginning, offered a very significant support for the process.

“The FARC, as many guerrillas in Colombia and throughout Latin America, see the Cuban revolution and the Cuban government…with great respect. And the pressure that the Cuban government has put on the FARC and the guerrillas has been quite significant, but also the way that they have been very discreet in allowing the Colombians, both the government and the guerrillas, to really take the lead and to drive this process.”

We’d point out that when Cuba’s government was pressuring the FARC to make peace, the U.S. government penalized it with a heavier load of U.S. sanctions due to its State Department designation as a state sponsor of terror; in part, for hosting FARC members in Cuba while the negotiations were taking place. After the December 17th, 2014 diplomatic breakthrough with Cuba, President Obama moved to drop Cuba from the list.

García-Peña also added, “The fact that Cuba is entering into a new moment of its relations with the United States…is one of the aspects that weighed heavily upon the Colombian guerrillas to understand that to continue the armed struggle simply had no future whatsoever.”  What happened in U.S.-Cuba bilateral relations helped nudge the parties closer to peace.

But, Eric Farnsworth, Vice President of the Americas Society and Council of the Americas in Washington, speaking to the Christian Science Monitor, said the U.S. role was also distinctive because we didn’t try to control the process, and we spoke with a lowered voice: “And it has struck a lot of people as a new day in Latin America when the U.S, says, ‘It’s up to you guys to do this deal, but we will do what we can to support it.'”

This suggests that a prediction made by Eric Hershberg and Bill LeoGrande in their new reader, “A New Chapter in U.S.-Cuba Relations,” is coming to pass more quickly than most. In it, they write, “A successful conclusion of peace talks between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) which have been facilitated by Havana, may add to awareness in Washington of the constructive role that Cuba can play in realizing common objectives.” At a time when hardliners in Congress are making mischief with proposals to stop U.S.-Cuba cooperation in security affairs, this points to the need for more collaboration, not less.

Finally it is worth noting how Cuba’s President Raúl Castro framed the achievement in regional and global terms. He said, as Marí­a Peña reported, “Peace will be a victory for Colombia, as well as for all America… In a world disrupted by war and violence, the achievement of peace in Colombia represents a hope for millions of people on the planet whose main preoccupation is survival.”

Britain may have exited, but peace is in the house, at least in Colombia, for everyone, without exception.

This week, in Cuba news…

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Orlando and “the other”

June 17, 2016


By coincidence, one of our first travel delegations landed in Cuba days before 9/11. It wasn’t long before we were heavy with grief and fear. But, we received lasting solace from a man in the Havana historian’s office who quoted José Martí.

The world can be divided into two kinds of men; those who love and create, and those who hate and destroy. I am pleased, he continued, that we (the people of Cuba and the U.S.) are both in the first group.

At a tragically unexpected time, his words were a revelation. Cubans – then, five decades into the U.S. embargo – could sweep aside history and politics to feel our tears on their faces.

It left an indelible impression on us. How could we not be reminded of it – when the White House turned up its nose at Cuba’s offer to send medical doctors to alleviate the suffering of the survivors of Katrina; when U.S. travel restrictions stopped Cuban Americans from attending family funerals on the island; when U.S. policymakers squeezed sanctions tighter without any concern for Cuban families made more desperate to put food on their tables; when U.S. policy falsely designated Cuba as a terrorist state, but let the conspirators who downed a Cuban airliner with a bomb onboard walk the streets of Miami with impunity.

Cubans have long been stigmatized as “the other” by a foreign policy that denies their humanity. Keeping that narrative frozen in place has been very much a hardliner goal – not just among some Cuban Americans, but for all in power who keep a candle burning for the Cold War.

A key element of their strategy is the ban on legal travel: stopping travel to Cuba for most of the last half-century denied the people of our country the chance to see the good or the bad of Cuba for themselves. The travel ban is a clever control over what most of us can learn about the difficulties of Cuban life or the appeal of the Cuban character – freezing in place their identity as “the other.”

As a strategy, it’s been effective. If you look here, you can see that the percentage of Americans who viewed Cuba favorably was stuck for years at or below 30% (in 1997, 81% of Americans viewed Cuba unfavorably). That lasted until 2011. But, after President Obama eliminated all restrictions on Cuban American travel and restored people-to-people travel in his first term, perceptions changed. The power of seeing Cuba – and meeting Cubans – once in the hands of a growing number of travelers has helped transform how our country views their country. Less like the other, more like us.

We can look to recent events large and small, constructive and tragic, for evidence that the idea that we share a common humanity with Cubans is being more broadly realized and redeemed.

This week, for example, Sylvia Burwell, the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, signed an agreement with her Cuban counterpart for our countries to work together on aging, disease, and the fight against cancer.

The agreement, Secretary Burwell said, provided “a historic opportunity for two nations to build on each other’s knowledge and experience, and benefit biomedical research and public health at-large.”

This week as well, Senators from both parties voted to repeal completely the ban on travel by Americans to Cuba, and to eliminate restrictions on agriculture sales that made it more expensive for Cuba to obtain food from its nearest neighbor. Meeting and breaking bread with Cubans could soon be within reach for more Americans. This is what normalization is really about.

Then, there was Orlando. Alejandro Barrios Martínez and Christopher Sanfeliz, two Cuban men, were among the 49 human beings massacred at Pulse early Sunday morning.

Their loss is felt deeply in Cuba. The Cuban LGBTQ rights group Proyecto Arcoíris, planning its annual Kiss-in for Diversity and Unity in Havana later this month, told members on its listserv, “Let this also be our tribute to the LBGTQ community of Orlando.”

A statement from Mariela Castro, the director of Cuba’s National Center for Sex Education, and the leading advocate in Cuba for LGBTQ rights, expressed her solidarity with the people of the U.S. and the LGBTQ community and her condemnation of violence that is an infringement of their human rights.

Her father, Raúl Castro, the President of Cuba, wrote to President Obama on Monday, sending “the most heartfelt condolences from the people and government of Cuba,” and reiterating Cuba’s rejection of any “act of terrorism or hate in any place.”

One of Cuba’s most hardened critics, U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, an opponent of travel between Cuba and the U.S., wrote the U.S. Chief of Mission to Cuba Jeffrey DeLaurentis, to request his help in securing a visa for the mother of Alejandro Barrios Martínez, to come to Orlando and pay her respects, and “make the final arrangements to bring her family comfort.”

Love is love is love.

What a remarkable thing – even when horror forces us to see “the other” as ourselves, and we’re pushed further along on our journey to love and build rather than hate and destroy.

This week, in Cuba news…

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“Slow Jam” the Embargo a Little Faster

June 10, 2016

We couldn’t watch President Barack Obama on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon Slow Jam the News – the racy, ribald segment that’s a sendup of a Barry White soul tune – without smiling at his line “Orange is not the new Black” and thinking, that’s our President.

But, when Mr. Obama snuck a look at his watch and reminded the audience he has a Hawaiian vacation booked “in about 223 days, but who’s counting?” a bit of melancholy crept in.

“The American people face an important decision this fall,” he said. “The entire world is watching and they look to us for stability and leadership. Now, I know that some of the presidential candidates have been critical of my foreign policy. I don’t want to name any names.   But, I believe it is of the utmost importance to work alongside of other world leaders. That’s why I signed the Iran Nuclear Deal. That’s why we reopened diplomatic ties with Cuba.”

Earlier the same day, his deputy national security advisor, Ben Rhodes declared the President’s opening to Cuba is “irreversible.” Rhodes said, “The fact of the matter is that the American people and the Cuban people overwhelmingly want this to happen…Frankly, whatever the political realities in either country, for somebody to try to turn this off, they would have to be working against the overwhelming desires of their own people.”

Turning it off, however, is exactly what Speaker Paul Ryan has in mind. In the National Security plank of his “Better Way” program, Mr. Ryan states “we cannot blindly follow the administration’s normalization plan with communist Cuba,” and promises “to hold the Castro regime accountable, and make sure any further accommodations are met first with real concessions from the Cuban government.”

In other words, no matter who wins the election in November and no matter what the public wants, the Speaker of the U.S. House is committed to sending U.S.-Cuba policy back to the dreadful days of deadlocks and dead-ends.

Which leads us to ask, is the policy irreversible enough? Will the right thinking impulse to work alongside foreign leaders be passed forward?

From now to January 2017, assuming continued Congressional inaction (a safe assumption, we safely assume), every additional reform secured through the exercise of executive authority is a step in the right direction.

Warmer, warmer, right direction, we thought, when we learned Friday that the U.S. Department of Transportation has authorized six U.S. airlines to begin regularly scheduled flights to five cities in Cuba this fall.

This decision was only possible because U.S. and Cuban diplomats sat down and hammered out an agreement in February enabling commercial service to resume for the first time in decades.

Not only is this good for U.S. travelers and airlines, it’s also a victory for the art of diplomacy; a victory that never would have happened under the “Better Way” approach, had we required a concession from Cuba to  give U.S. citizens this liberty back.

To be sure, this decision should provide an economic incentive – what the Washington wags call “skin in the game” – to vest the U.S. travel industry in the Obama Cuba opening and get them to work to make the opening wider still.

At the same time, we hope the administration is thinking even bigger. It’s one thing – a good thing – that the President has been upfront in calling on Congress to end the embargo. It would be ever better if the U.S.–Cuba diplomatic dialogue – on critical matters such as fugitives from justice, property claims, and human rights – could settle differences that are used by the hardliners, the “Better Way” crowd, to hold up the normalization process.

That would take additional bold actions by the leadership of both countries. But, with 222 days left on the President’s watch (yes, we’re counting), this is the right time to “slow jam” the embargo a little faster.

This week, in Cuba news… Read the rest of this entry »

Cuba’s (Really) Off the Terror List: Normalization in Words and Pictures

June 3, 2016

Cuba was removed from the U.S. government’s State Sponsors of Terror list last May 29th and rightly so.  Cuba was put on this “name and shame list” during the Reagan administration under false pretenses in 1982.  This, in turn, was a trigger for tougher U.S. economic sanctions, greater diplomatic isolation, and rubbishing Cuba’s reputation in our domestic politics.

As part of his D-17 initiative restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba, President Obama started an orderly process that resulted in Cuba being dropped from the list before our embassies were opened in Havana and Washington, before our flags were raised and properly displayed above them.  It would have been unthinkable to formalize relations until this wrong was righted.

Despite hardliner opposition, no vote was ever called, not a single Senator or Representative even introduced legislation, to keep Cuba on the list.  Their failure to act called attention to the increasing weakness of the pro-sanctions lobby, and the change helped prompt a majority of the American public to view Cuba in a positive light for the first time since the country’s revolution.

The President’s decision proved so uncontroversial – and intervening events like the Obama trip to Havana were so successful – that what transpired Thursday at the State Department escaped the notice of most news agencies.

The State Department released its Country Reports on Terrorism (2015) at a briefing convened for Justin Siberell, Acting Coordinator for Counterterrorism, and neither he, nor the reporters who asked him questions, even mentioned the word “Cuba.”

If you don’t believe us, you can read the transcript here.  Or, read the 2015 terror list here. Cuba really is off the list.  Even better, look at the report and see that the State Department has finally put Cuba where it belongs; right here,between Colombia and Mexico, on the alphabetized list of Western Hemisphere nations from whom we have nothing to fear, an elegant word picture for normalization itself.

This brings us to the multi-media part of this week’s essay.

Sometimes words aren’t enough.  For example, if you need a history lesson in U.S.-Cuba relations, a reminder of the conflicts that led to Cuba’s designation on the terror list, you can watch this video describing 150 years of US-Cuba history (in just 6 minutes!).

Spoiler alert:  It’s a movie with a happy ending; in the end, Cuba and the U.S. restore relations.

After that, you might turn to this infographic that powerfully conveys what the U.S. and Cuba have to gain by mending ties, posted on line by the Norwich Masters of Diplomacy.

It has great graphics on the impact of the embargo, the size of Cuba’s economy, how Cubans benefit from their country’s social provisions, and how Cuba is a positioned to grow as trade with the U.S. expands.  It’s a picture of Cuba – not as a military threat, but as a bilateral U.S. partner for two-way commerce and investment.

Another infographic – Changes in Cuba – portrays changes in Cuba such as the expansion of Internet access, Cuba’s abolition of travel restrictions, the rise in private sector job growth, and the existence of private markets for the sale of homes and automobiles.

All of these developments began before Presidents Castro and Obama announced their joint decision to restore relations.  But, the increasing spaces for travel and trade due to regulatory changes instigated by President Obama are accelerating their effects.

If you’d like to drill down on Entrepreneurial Activity in Cuba’s Private Sector, Dr. Ted Henken released a graphic last year that documents how big Cuba’s private and cooperative sectors have grown, and details the business activities in which they’re engaged.

If pictures alone don’t do it for you, Brookings is offering “Open for Business: Building the New Cuban Economy,” a book by Richard Feinberg billed as an expert’s guide to Cuba’s economic opening to the outside world, and a videoof a Brookings event featuring Cuban millennials looking ahead to building the new Cuban economy. Ricardo Torres, the University of Havana economist, assures us that “Goodwill and common sense will prevail.”

We’re confident he’ll be proven right.  The climate for positive change is getting better.

A year ago, the President’s decision on the terror list contributed to the essential process of building of trust between the U.S. and Cuba in ways most of us could hardly picture; the warm welcome Mr. Obama received from Cubans on his trip last March was perhaps the greatest manifestation of how much closer our countries have become.

Of course, there’s much left to do.  But, the State Department’s new report on terrorism adds to the accumulating evidence – in words and bytes alike – that the normalization process is going well.   It needs to stay on track.

This week in Cuba news…

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