How Putin’s Political Hack Could Impact U.S. “Regime Change” Hacks in Cuba

July 29, 2016

Only Steve Martin, who jumped about with an arrow through his head, could find a practical upside to the use news of Russian cyber-espionage aimed at disrupting the U.S. presidential election.

If the Russians can find my old iTunes playlist, that would be so great (Twitter).

But, written on the furrowed brows of the U.S. national security establishment, reacting to Russian hackers penetrating the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) computer system and dumping 30,000 of its emails on the eve of the party’s convention, are the words THIS IS NO JOKE in all caps.

We think it’s serious, too. But, with the alarm bells ringing in reaction to what Russian state actors did, we also want to consider its implications for U.S. regime change policies toward Cuba.

The Russian election hack is not just another flame bursting from the out-of-control dumpster fire that is the 2016 presidential election. While experts concede that the “Great powers in particular, including the United States, often meddle in foreign elections,” the Russian hack appears to have crossed a line into a dangerous, more provocative realm.

Eliot A. Cohen, a former counselor in George W. Bush’s State Department, told the Washington Post, “Foreign governments sometimes express preferences about who should be elected; that’s already problematic,” he said. “But to do something in the nature of dirty tricks would be a very, very serious problem.”

Amanda Taub, writing in the New York Times, said the use of such tactics had the potential to make “the international arena more volatile. It is difficult to determine responsibility, which creates a risk that states will punish the wrong culprit — or respond too harshly, forcing an unintended cycle of escalation.”

Under a new Obama administration policy, as the New York Times reported this week, the attack on the DNC would qualify as a “significant cyber incident,” and merit a response that causes “diplomatic, financial and legal pain.”

The righteously indignant reaction by U.S. experts to the Russian election hack makes us ask if now is the right time for a reconsideration of the “regime change” efforts to undermine Cuba’s government still in use today.

Before we reply to the utterly predictable, misplaced groans about “moral equivalency,” consider the facts.

Since 1996, the U.S. government has spent over a billion dollars in programs aimed at overthrowing the Cuban system. As Tracey Eaton reported last year, activities funded by the State Department, USAID, and the National Endowment for Democracy account for over $324 million, to which he adds another $700 million in spending for Radio and TV Martí – the broadcast outlets few Cubans ever watch or hear.

These funds are authorized under Section 109 of the Helms-Burton Act. It authorizes the U.S. government to “provide assistance and support to individuals and independent non‑governmental organizations in their efforts towards democratization of Cuba.” Fulton Armstrong, an expert in Latin American Affairs, has called this “a euphemism that serves as a basis for legalizing U.S. interference in the internal affairs of Cuba in open violation of international law.”

The interference, as many of our readers know, has come in the following forms:

  • Smuggling sophisticated communications equipment into Cuba to establish secret networks for use by government opponents to communicate and organize in violation of Cuban law. Alan Gross spent five years in a Cuban prison for committing such an offense.
  • Creating the ZunZuneo social media network, exposed by the AP, to “introduce political content aimed at inspiring Cubans to organize ‘smart mobs’ — mass gatherings called at a moment’s notice that might trigger a Cuban spring, or, as one USAID document put it, ‘renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society.’”
  • Smearing Cardinal Jaime Ortega, Cuba’s former Archbishop, whose efforts to free political prisoners by talking to Cuba’s leaders were criticized in an editorial by Radio/TV Martí as “collusion.” He was called a “lackey” of the regime by the senior Obama administration official who wrote it.
  • Recruiting Latin American youth “in hopes of ginning up rebellion” in Cuba, as the Washington Post reported, by infiltrating them into Cuba, recruiting Cubans under the guise of bringing them to an HIV-prevention workshop, but never informing them that the U.S. government was financing the cost of trying to convert them into government opponents, which put them in great danger.

When Tracey Eaton compiled the data on U.S. government spending for Helms-Burton funded activities like these, supporters of the program told him “that the American government has the right to impose its will because the Cuban government is a dictatorship that has no moral authority and no right to deprive its citizens of universal human rights.” The Russians likely have a similar rationale for hacking our presidential campaign.

The argument that Cuba deserves it is a non-starter. As we and many others have argued, the regime change programs taint the Cubans who get caught up in them and inflame hardliners inside Official Cuba to oppose or slow the normalization process. In ways so similar to U.S. politics, this forces President Raúl Castro to protect his left flank. As Fulton Armstrong documented this spring, President Castro in remarks before the Cuban Communist Party Congress, criticized Washington’s efforts to drive political change in Cuba, as “a perverse strategy of political-ideological subversion against the very essence of the revolution and Cuban culture, history, and values.” Regime change programs slow down the normalization process we’d all like to see move faster.

If Russia’s hack of the 2016 election is risky, a threat to national security, and worthy of a response that inflicts pain, doesn’t the pervasive, permanent, costly, and counterproductive policy of seeking to overthrow Cuba’s government – at the same time we are negotiating with its leadership a new normalized relationship – merit condemnation, replacement, or just reconsideration?

We need, as an analyst wrote about the Russia hack this week, repeal of Section 109, or at least a moratorium on regime change activities in Cuba, or else we’ll add justification to the arms race of weaponized meddling in governments like ours.

This week, in Cuba news:
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The Year of Living Diplomatically

July 22, 2016

“We have a new course in U.S.-Cuba relations…and we’re trying to make as much progress as possible so the policy is viewed as in the best interests of the U.S. and irreversible.”

Our man in Havana, Jeffrey DeLaurentis, the U.S. Chargé d’Affaires in Havana, made these comments to the Xinhua news agency this week summarizing what’s been accomplished through diplomacy in the year since the U.S. Embassy reopened in Havana.

Diplomacy has produced a substantial body of work, as the fact sheet released by the State Department makes clear. The U.S. and Cuba have signed ten agreements with another seven in train and may be ready before the end of this year. Fifty-five years of stalemated statecraft saw only five agreements between the two countries that remain in force today, as Cuba’s chief negotiator in the normalization talks, Josefina Vidal, observed in comments to Granma. This is what happens when the U.S. talks to Cuba, and Cuba talks to us.

But, while we rightly celebrate this first year of diplomacy with Cuba, the Cold Warriors and party poopers who pine for the old policy of punishing of Cuba with tighter sanctions view the success of negotiations as a failure. As Tim Padgett wrote this week, “They’ve declared engagement with Cuba a flop because it hasn’t achieved in 365 days what isolating Cuba couldn’t do in 55 years.”

For example, in case you thought Senator Marco Rubio was posturing for his presidential campaign by blocking the appointment of a U.S. ambassador to Cuba, he is pledging to do the same thing next year, now that he is running for reelection to the Senate in Florida this year.

He told Politico on Wednesday, “A U.S. ambassador is not going to influence the Cuban government, which is a dictatorial, closed regime.” He doesn’t even want an Ambassador in Havana with direct access to highly placed Cuban officials to give it the old college try.

Rubio’s antipathy toward diplomacy is shared by like-minders on the other side of the U.S. Capitol. If the State Department budget bill written by the House Appropriations Committee becomes law, Ambassador DeLaurentis will be prohibited from adding staff or enlarging his already inadequate facilities.

Such limits are ideological, not rational. They come at a moment, as Senator Jeff Flake said, when “There are going to be too many Americans traveling to Cuba and doing legal business in Cuba to deny them the opportunity to have a full-fledged diplomatic presence there.”

From now to the end of President Obama’s term, rationality is likely to prevail; if only because he is unlikely to sign legislation that reverses the long-sought gains of his Cuba policy, and Congress – on a seven-week recess now and in Washington for just a month this fall before skipping town to campaign for reelection – is not going to work long or hard enough to repeal them.

With the President’s term winding down, there’s much left to do and shrinking time to do it. As the Miami Herald observed this week, “daunting issues remain [including] the embargo, claims for confiscated property of U.S. citizens and corporations, differences over human rights, migration, return of fugitives from justice, and Cuban demands for reparations for damages from the embargo and the return of the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay.”

We encourage the Obama administration to take advantage of the Congressional absence, and put the accelerator to the floor on U.S.-Cuba diplomacy to try and get done as much of this as possible.

Negotiating is a sign of strength, not weakness; as the great Cold Warrior, Winston Churchill, famously said:  “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.” Getting more agreements in place, as Ambassador DeLaurentis said, will be in both countries’ interests and will help make the policy irreversible.

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On Cuba, the Republican Party Platform Repudiates Obama and Trump

July 15, 2016

Earlier this week in Cleveland, State Senator Eric Brakey of Maine tried to make some changes to his party’s foreign policy platform. Leigh Ann Caldwell of NBC News says Brakey thought the Cuba plank was isolationist.

That seemed odd, since Donald Trump’s position on President Obama’s opening with Cuba – it’s “fine, but I think we should make a much better deal” – seemed reasonably pro-engagement, and normally a national party platform tracks the positions of the party’s nominee.

Not this year, apparently. Although as of this writing, the platform hasn’t been made public, an early draft did make it into our hands. It turns out brave Senator Brakey didn’t make any headway. The language in this document is a lot closer to the Platt Amendment than to the Donald’s negotiating position.

Although the platform is still subject to change, this is apparently what the party intends to say about how it would run U.S. policy toward Cuba after President Obama leaves office:

“We want to welcome the people of Cuba back into our hemispheric family – after their corrupt rulers are forced from power and brought to account for their crimes against humanity. We stand with the Women in White [sic] and all the victims of the loathsome regime that clings to power in Havana. We do not say this lightly: They have been betrayed by those who are currently in control of U.S. foreign policy. The current Administration’s ‘opening to Cuba’ was a shameful accommodation to the demands of its tyrants. It will only strengthen their military dictatorship.

“We call on the Congress to uphold current U.S. law which sets conditions for the lifting of sanctions on the island: legalization of political parties, an independent media and free and fair internationally-supervised elections. We call for a dedicated platform for the transmission of Radio and TV Martí and for the promotion of internet access and circumvention technology as tools to strength(en) Cuba’s pro-democracy movement. We support the work of the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba and affirm the principles of the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, recognizing the rights of Cubans fleeing Communism.”

This is your father’s foreign policy, like traveling in time with Peabody and Sherman in the “way back machine.” The Cuba plank endorses President Johnson’s immigration policy, recommits to President Reagan’s listener-free Radio and TV Martí, asserts the primacy of Helms-Burton, breathes life into the Bush-era regime-change commission, and seeks the promotion of “circumvention technology,” which sounds suspiciously like what got Alan Gross in all sorts of trouble ending with a lengthy stay in prison.

Strangely, the platform says nothing about the rights of Cuban Americans to visit their families in Cuba without restrictions; nothing about the people-to-people travel rights of every other American; nothing about Starwood Hotel, Airbnb, or the wireless carriers who allow U.S. travelers roam with their cellphones in Cuba; nothing about the good people working to protect our nation’s interests in the U.S. Embassy in Havana. Could a platform this backward-looking mean to leave those accomplishments in place? We’re left to guess not.

Either way, this amounts to a return to the status quo ante, to the Cold War days when our two governments didn’t speak, when Latin America was utterly united against the U.S. position, and when Cubans were burdened by a climate of fear and hostility they do not want to see again.

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On Cuba and ‘Making Gentle the Life of This World’

July 8, 2016

This week, the Obama administration and the U.S. Congress sent contrary signals about the direction of U.S. policy on the subject of travel by Americans to Cuba.

The Department of Transportation awarded routes from the U.S. to Havana to eight commercial carriers, vastly expanding opportunities to visit Cuba for people-to-people travelers. However, an amendment to the Treasury Department’s budget bill that would have legalized all forms of travel to Cuba was set aside by the sponsor, because Speaker Paul Ryan was collecting votes to prevent its passage – and that was before the House adopted the bill and some pro-embargo provisions.

These developments – along with new reporting on Cuba’s energy conservation measures, action by U.S. Mayors calling for an end to the embargo, and the prospect of Congress acting in support of farm sales to the island – are summarized in our news brief below.

We curated these articles cognizant that our readers will be seeing them at the same time we in the U.S. are trying to understand the storm of violence that ripped through this country, north to south, in the last four days. It’s an awful moment when words are both insufficient and in excess supply, and yet it would be wrong not even to mention what is happening before us.

Let us simply say this.

Nearly fifty years ago, Robert F. Kennedy offered this advice to a suffering nation in a remarkable address that inspires us to this day.

“Let’s dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.”

Thank you for reading what we have to offer today.

This week, in Cuba news:

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Happy July 4th Weekend (just don’t read this while driving)

July 1, 2016

At the start of the U.S. celebration of Independence Day, it is sheer coincidence that the top four news stories you’ll read below are travel-related, driven by smart changes in U.S. policy and indicative of the vital role U.S. businesses can play contributing to normalization.

Here’s a preview: If you were in Cuba right now and needed some cash, you could use your Stonegate-issued MasterCard at an ATM in Havana. If you plan to book a flight with American Airlines, whose service to Cuba starts in September, you will be able to contact a new Cuba-specific reservations desk to get help obtaining a visa for your trip. If you want to use your people-to-people travel privileges to see Cuba by ship and automobile, and you qualify for AARP membership, you can book passage with Grand Circle Travel, which will begin its cruise service in January 2017. If you’re thinking about hotels in Cuba, and want a room that feels familiar, you might check out the Quinta Avenida Hotel in Havana, now operating as a Four Points Sheraton.

Without the exercise of Presidential leadership on key policy reforms, and decisions by the businesses involved to take some risks, the lead story in the news brief would be about the third bilateral meeting on the environment (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

American Airlines and Grand Circle Travel enter the Cuban market under the cover of competition, but without assurances consumers want to buy what they’re selling. Call that consumer risk. Stonegate Bank assumed regulatory risk when it became the first U.S.-based financial institution with a real foothold in Cuba; the substantial fines imposed by this administration and its predecessors for violating Cuba sanctions that are still in force shake lesser institutions down to their shareholders.

Starwood, however, by taking over management responsibilities for hotels in Havana owned by Gaviota, a Cuban state-owned enterprise, willingly assumed the biggest risk; exposing itself to political attack and reputational damage from click-baiting but factually accurate headlines like this one, Starwood begins managing hotel run by military in Cuba, from the Associated Press.

By awarding Starwood a license authorizing this arrangement, the Obama administration acknowledged a reality of Cuba’s centrally planned economy; namely, that building durable ties between our countries will require U.S. corporations to do business not just with Cuba’s independent small-business sector but also with state-owned enterprises, some controlled by Cuba’s military. Establishing this precedent is essential to moving the normalization process forward.

Starwood isn’t doing this for charitable reasons: it’s in Cuba to build its brand and make money from global tourists and U.S. guests visiting Havana. Ideally, it will also have knock-on effects and embolden other U.S. companies to seek licenses and bring their operations to the island.

It is our hope that the collective weight of such decisions will persuade policymakers in Washington that the embargo is so past its sell-by date that Congress will finally clear it from the “shelves” of our legal system. At which point doing business in Cuba won’t be require so many regulatory checks and P.R. balances.

This is a good strategy. But, the U.S. campaign finance system, among other factors, stands in our way.

On Wednesday, Senator Marco Rubio held a fundraiser in Washington that, according to Politico, raised at least $500,000. As is customary, Senator Rubio’s campaign committee sent out invitations topped by prominent names and listing suggested donation levels, e.g. a PAC can pay $5,000 and an individual can pony up $2,500 to be listed as sponsors. If you’d like to read his invitation, you can do so here.

Senator Rubio, of course, is an avowed opponent of President Obama’s trade and travel reforms, which lie at the heart of our commercial opening with Cuba. So, it’s no surprise to find Mauricio Claver-Carone’s name among the financially generous supporters of the Senator’s reelection; Claver-Carone’s U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC donated nearly $400,000 to pro-sanctions legislators in the first quarter of 2016 alone.

Unfortunately, it is also no surprise to find on the list: the Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s premier advocate for free trade with Cuba for decades; Holland & Knight, a law firm whose “Cuba Action Team” advises clients on doing business in Cuba; and the American Hotel and Lodging Association’s Political Action Committee, which is urging Congress to “pass additional legislation to open up [Cuba] to American businesses, especially lodging companies who can build new infrastructure in that country to accommodate these additional travelers.”

In Washington, an individual, a company, or an institution that advocates for change and donates to the opponents of the change they stand for is understood to be a rational actor covering his bets.

This isn’t just legal. It’s business as usual. But it also makes deploying some of the most powerful and persuasive advocates for ending the embargo a somewhat more complicated task than it ought to be.

Happy Independence Day.

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