Slam Dunk for a Lame Duck: Our Man in Havana and Obama’s Faith in Diplomacy

September 30, 2016

On Wednesday, President Obama sent the nomination of Jeffrey DeLaurentis to the U.S. Senate for confirmation to be our nation’s first ambassador to Cuba in a half-century.

In a statement released by the White House, the President said of DeLaurentis, a career diplomat who now serves as Chargé d’Affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Havana, “There is no public servant better suited to improve our ability to engage the Cuban people and advance U.S. interests in Cuba than Jeff.”

Later that day, Senator Marco Rubio, a senior Member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement, “President Obama’s Nomination of Ambassador to Castro Regime Should Go Nowhere.”

This surprised no one. In 2014, just hours after President Obama announced his historic breakthrough with Cuba, Senator Rubio stated his strident opposition to the new policy by promising to block the appointment of any ambassador to Cuba. This week he renewed his pledge, by declaring the DeLaurentis nomination dead and calling diplomacy with Cuba “appeasement.”

If Founding Father John Adams were here today, he would be shocked to witness a partisan controversy over something as basic as having a U.S. ambassador in the foreign capital of a nation with whom we are normalizing relations. In his time, Adams served as the first U.S. ambassador to Britain following the end of our Revolutionary War.

It would hardly reassure Adams to learn that Senator Rubio’s stance on ambassadors – and diplomacy – is inconsistent. A day after he denounced the DeLaurentis nomination, Rubio responded to the death of Shimon Peres by praising Israel’s former Prime Minister and President precisely because Peres negotiated with Israel’s enemies:

“He fought for a brighter future for the children of Israel, and in addition to seeking peace with the Palestinians, helped negotiate peace with Egypt and Jordan when most believed it was not possible.”

Today, we concern ourselves not with Rubio’s inconstancy (he also voted to confirm the U.S. Ambassador to China), but with President Obama’s faith in diplomacy and, even more, the choice he is facing given the roadblocks to the DeLaurentis nomination.

In 2007, he was asked (as were the other primary candidates) if he “would be willing to meet with the leaders of America’s most vociferous enemies: Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea.” At the time, his answer seemed exotic and politically risky.

Then-Senator Obama answered plainly, as Jon Lee Anderson reminds us, in his recent New Yorker essay, “I would.” He said:

“The notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them—which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of [the Bush] Administration—is ridiculous.” He waited out a round of applause, then continued, “Now, Ronald Reagan and Democratic Presidents like J.F.K. constantly spoke to the Soviet Union at a time when Ronald Reagan called them an evil empire. And the reason is because they understood that we may not trust them and they may pose an extraordinary danger to this country, but we had the obligation to find areas where we can potentially move forward.”

Six years later, President Obama demonstrated respect for Cuba’s sovereignty when he shook President Raúl Castro’s hand at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service in South Africa; a year after that he proved that talking to Cuba could realize the national interest in negotiations that opened the door for the two countries to resume diplomatic relations and set Cuban and American prisoners free.

In the fruitful talks that followed, diplomats from the U.S. and Cuba have produced agreements to restore air service, direct mail service, and telephone service, provide for cell phone roaming, as well as cooperation on environmental protection and law enforcement.

Now, the President has taken the long-delayed step of nominating the first U.S. ambassador to Cuba in more than 50 years.

This draws the battle lines between a President who wants an ambassador in Cuba to advance the normalization process, and opponents of the nomination, who think it conveys unacceptable legitimacy to the Cuban government. What happens next?

Deputy National Security advisor Ben Rhodes, an architect of the diplomatic opening, sees the path forward clearly. “They’ll put up a fight and we’ll see if we can get him a vote,” Rhodes said. “Hopefully we can. If not, we wanted to set the precedent that governments nominate ambassadors to Cuba. And it’ll be evident over time that it’s self-defeating to just deny us the resource of an ambassador.”

But if Congress fails to act on DeLaurentis’ nomination, he need not take one for the team in defeat. During his two terms in office, President George W. Bush made 171 recess appointments, employing his presidential power to make appointments, albeit temporary, when his nominations faced what the Washington Post called “a wall of Democratic opposition.”

It was by a recess appointment that conservative firebrand John Bolton came to serve as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and his fellow Cold Warrior, Otto J Reich, became Assistant Secretary of Western Hemisphere Affairs for a provisional period in Bush’s first term.

According to the Congressional Research Service, Bush made 30 recess appointments during the period between a national election and the next year, while Congress was not in session. Those appointments last for a year. If the Senate doesn’t vote to confirm his nominee, President Obama can take the same step that President Bush took to appoint Mr. DeLaurentis as our ambassador.

Making a recess appointment to give our man in Havana ambassadorial status would be controversial. Congress can use the trick of not adjourning to deny the President a chance to make recess appointments. There’s precedent for that, too.

What’s clear is that Jeff DeLaurentis is a great diplomat who has performed extraordinary service as the U.S. and Cuba have begun to rebuild relations after decades of deep enmity. His appointment is worth fighting for; if not in an up-or-down Senate vote, he’d be a slam dunk after the lame duck. Either way, we suspect John Adams would be pleased.

This week in Cuba news…

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Nothing Trumps Sovereignty

September 23, 2016


We in the U.S. owe the government of China about $1.2 trillion. That’s the value of the U.S. Treasury securities held by China that our government sells to finance our debt.

So, here’s a mind exercise: What would happen if China came to us and said, we’d be happy to cancel the debts you owe us, but you’d have to adopt China’s communist system as your own?

$1.2 trillion is a lot of money. But, even in a country as polarized as ours, you wouldn’t find a taker. You could bring that offer to any American among the 7.9 million people who visited the Lincoln Memorial last year, the 4.2 million who went to see the Statue of Liberty, or the 2.4 million who traveled to see Mt. Rushmore in 2015, or to any one of us today.  The only answer you’d hear would sound like a colorful variant of “hell no.” If anyone in our government said yes, it would stir a revolt.

That’s like the devil’s bargain at the center of the U.S. embargo against Cuba. The deal it offers to Cuba is as simple – and as poisonous – as our imagined debt deal with China. Our policy tells Cubans that if they’d just drop their communist system and replace it with ours, we’d stop trying to bankrupt their economy to force their government to collapse.

We’ve been offering this deal for six decades, and the policy has failed because Cubans won’t sacrifice their national sovereignty in exchange for having our embargo lifted.

In Havana on December 17, 2014, when Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro announced their agreement to resume diplomatic relations, we witnessed what seemed like a collective sigh of relief; from the students who marched joyfully past the monuments to Cuba’s wars of independence to the texts exchanged among hard-bitten Habaneros (so-called “Godless communists”) who praised St. Lázaro for his righteous intervention in bringing hostilities with the U.S. to an end.

In remarks broadcast unedited on Cuban state television, President Obama proposed a new deal for Cuba. While he pledged to keep standing for American values in Cuba, he promised not to do so at the price of Cuba’s sovereignty. He said, “It does not serve America’s interests, or the Cuban people, to try to push Cuba toward collapse.”

Although Congressional action is needed to lift the embargo, the President promised to change regulations, e.g. those within his reach to spur more travel and trade, without first extracting concessions from Cuba’s government. This relief from coercion – plus the prospect of closer ties with the U.S. and more prosperous, peaceful times for Cuba’s people – excited that impassioned reaction. Since December 17th, the President has kept his word, implementing wave after wave of Cuba policy reforms.

Historically, Cubans, so deeply affected by U.S. policy, have followed our presidential elections closely; though this season, they’d been less engaged. Both major party candidates had said they supported Mr. Obama’s decision to normalize relations, although Mr. Trump added that he would have cut “a better deal.”

However, in a recent speech he delivered in Miami, the Republican Party nominee said he would reverse President Obama’s policies, unless President Raúl Castro met every one of his demands. This has jolted Cubans into paying much more urgent attention to the 2016 campaign.

As the Associated Press reported, “Cubans are suddenly envisioning the possibility of a U.S. president who would undo measures popular among virtually everyone on the island, from hard-line communists to advocates of greater freedom and democracy.”

This proves that Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis, our top diplomat in Cuba, was absolutely right when he said in an interview with Temas, a Cuban journal this week, “Americans and Cubans have a lot more in common than they think.”

In the U.S. and Cuba, we both love our sovereignty. Sovereignty is a cherished thing that cannot be dealt away. Not for all the T-bills in China, and not for “a better deal” with Cuba.

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#Dumbargo: UN Report Offers Preview of Next U.S. Drubbing for Cuba Embargo

September 16, 2016

Today, we obtained a copy of the UN report sent by the Secretary-General to member states before the General Assembly casts its annual vote on the resolution against the U.S. embargo against Cuba.

As the Washington Post reported last year, this resolution is not legally binding. But, every year since Cuba first offered the anti-embargo measure in 1992, “The United States has never garnered more than three other votes against it.” That year, according to Reuters, only Israel and Romania stood with the U.S., 59 countries voted to approve the resolution, and all other member states abstained.

By 2015 – the year President Obama restored diplomatic relations with Cuba, took Cuba off the terror list, and loosened restrictions on travel and trade – Cuba got 191 votes to condemn U.S. policy. Next month, when the roll call on this year’s resolution is completed, the U.S. and (most likely) Israel will almost certainly stand alone in defense of the indefensible.

We write about this vote every year, even though many news organizations barely pay it any mind. To them, if the United States is getting its diplomatic clock cleaned for the 24th – or this year, 25th – year in a row, that isn’t really news.

But, it might be news to many Americans – who could be forgiven if they think the embargo has gone away – that it is still in place, just as many are unaware that tourist travel to the island is still illegal and subject to punishing fines. After all, President Obama visited the island, JetBlue became the first commercial carrier to resume regularly scheduled flights, Vanity Fair took Rihanna’s picture in Havana, and Conan O’Brien danced and sang oh so memorably on his visit last year.

Despite such mesmerizing images, the embargo continues. Even if the inconvenience it imposes on us can be measured by the cigars we didn’t smoke or the rum we couldn’t drink, the damage our embargo visits on the Cuban people, as Joy Gordon wrote in Harper’s Magazine, “has been, and continues to be, pervasive and profound.”

Hardliners, who want the embargo to remain in place, like to pretend it has magical powers; it can “punish” the leaders of Cuba’s communist government, “starving the Castros of cash,” they like to say, while somehow sparing Cubans of its harsh effects.

Logic tells us that cannot be right, and the Secretary-General’s report affirms that our logic and reality are aligned. In it, the World Food Program shows how U.S. sanctions limit Cuba’s agriculture production and boost food insecurity by raising the bill for the food the country needs to import to feed its people. The UN Development Program reports that the embargo impairs Cuba’s ability to provide medical care and social services to more than 20,000 Cubans of all ages living with HIV/AIDS.

The embargo is, in fact, so pervasive that it runs up the costs of equipping 414 elementary school students enrolled in specialized music programs with violins, violas, and cellos. That might not break your heart, but this might: The embargo makes it extremely difficult for Cuba’s pediatric hospitals, indeed hospitals of all kinds, to obtain parts to repair diagnostic equipment and other supplies they need for patients in their care, and costly to find replacements from other foreign suppliers. The damage done by the embargo is immense, and no sector of Cuba’s economy is immune.

Neither are we. The embargo boomerangs on patients here in the U.S. for whom a raft of medicines and therapies – to reduce cholesterol, treat cancer, and cut down on the needless amputations of limbs for diabetics – are effectively kept out of reach. That’s heartbreaking, too.

We deeply admire President Obama for restoring relations, visiting Cuba, and working so hard to roll back this Cold War policy against Cuba that our country has been stuck with so long.

Yet as he wrote the historic speech he delivered in Havana, in which he called the embargo “an outdated burden on the Cuban people” and “a burden on the Americans who want to work and do business or invest here in Cuba,” didn’t he wonder about the impact of the fines levied by his administration – hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines in February 2016 alone – “for relatively small violations that took place years before,” as Harper’s reported – that would make global businesses and financial institutions afraid of doing business in Cuba?

This is the central theme of the Secretary-General’s report, echoed not just in Cuba’s comments but in those of our allies in the region and elsewhere: Financial enforcement of the U.S. embargo imposes burdens on Cuba’s economy that make it impossible for the country to reach its potential and for its citizens to live full lives. This, in turn, begs the question of whether President Obama can or is willing to do more before he leaves office to remove this core contradiction from U.S. policy.

This is not to cast a blind eye to those problems plaguing Cuba’s economy that are of its own creation. Dr. Ricardo Torres Pérez, a prominent, pro-reform economist in Cuba, identifies in a piece published by American University numerous decisions Cuba can take to get its own house in order. As the Associated Press reported, Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla, Cuba’s Foreign Minister, said in a press conference this week, “No one’s ignoring or aims to hide our problems, our limitations, our mistakes.”

But, Mr. Rodríguez went on to say, “President Obama reserves broad executive authority that he can use up to his last minute in the White House.” He’s right. In a letter organized by the Washington Office on Latin America, an NGO coalition including the Center for Democracy in the Americas offered a list of actions President Obama could take to further his Cuba policy advances, including assuring “the U.S. banking and financial services industry they would not face penalties if they take advantage of legal opportunities in Cuba.”

Rather than continuing the double-game of undermining Cuba’s economy while simultaneously pursuing U.S. diplomacy, there are steps the President can take, even now, before the UN votes next month – to help Cuba’s economy right itself, generating more jobs and opportunities, for the Cuban people and U.S. businesses.

What the hardliners say is fantasy. Our embargo is hurting the Cuban people, and the President should try to reduce their pain before he leaves office.

Ultimately, normalization will not be complete until the U.S. Congress votes to end the embargo. That’s going to take a lot of work and effort extending into the administration of whomever succeeds Mr. Obama as president. Perhaps our elected leaders could turn for inspiration to the Vatican’s section of the Secretary-General’s report, quoting Pope Francis:

“For some months now, we have witnessed an event which fills us with hope: the process of normalizing relations between two peoples following years of estrangement. It is a process, a sign of the victory of the culture of encounter and dialogue, ‘the system of universal growth’ over ‘the forever-dead system of groups and dynasties,’ as José Martí said.”

The Pope went on to say, “I urge political leaders to persevere on this path and to develop all its potentialities as a proof of the high service which they are called to carry out on behalf of the peace and well-being of their peoples, of all America, and as an example of reconciliation for the entire world.”

The vote at the UN will take place on October 26th.

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Cuba and True Patriotism: The Debate on Meeting and Feeding Cubans

September 9, 2016

“The Senator from Wisconsin cannot frighten me by exclaiming, ‘My country, right or wrong.’ In one sense I say so too. My country; and my country is the great American Republic. My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”  Senator Carl Schurz, remarks in the U.S. Senate, February 29, 1872.

Legislation was introduced this week in the U.S. Senate to cut off the regularly scheduled commercial flights to Cuba recently resumed by the Obama administration.

If the bill passes, it would give JetBlue and other commercial carriers a case of the blues. It would also impose a real hardship on Cubans on both sides of the Florida Strait, by making their family reunions much more costly to arrange. Moreover, passage of a law blocking these flights would re-impose limits on our constitutional right to travel, and prevent more Americans from meeting Cubans and learning from them, for reasons justified only by the sponsors’ hatred of Cuba’s government.

The two Senators committed to stopping the flights – Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey – wrap themselves in the false flag of patriotism. They’ve called passage of their legislation essential to avoid “leaving key aspects of our airport security in the hands of the anti-American, repressive regime in Cuba.”

Next week, the House Committee on Agriculture will hold a hearing on trade with Cuba, with special attention to legal and regulatory restrictions that make it harder for farmers in the U.S. to sell nutritious, high-quality food for consumption by the Cuban people at a lower cost.

For nearly forty years, policymakers in the U.S. Congress from both political parties have stood against the use of food as a weapon of national security. Methods like trade embargos and other measures designed to restrict access to food, especially for poor and developing nations, are correctly recognized as instruments of cruelty and potential sources of instability.

Yet the embargo lobby defends restrictions on U.S. farm sales to the island as a check on Cuba’s military and government, and consistent with the national security interests of the United States.

It’s startling to think we have been having this debate over the course of three centuries.

Senator Carl Schurz was an aggressive opponent of what he called American Imperialism. In 1899, he spoke out against plans by the U.S. government to dominate Cuba and the Philippines after our country intervened in what we call the Spanish-American War.

He had no particular love for the people of either country. His concern instead was for the character of the United States. At an address in Chicago, he said, “If we [adopt a colonial system], we shall transform the government of the people, for the people, and by the people, for which Abraham Lincoln lived, into a government of one part of the people, the strong, over another part, the weak.”

So when you hear the opponents of flights to Cuba – and advocates for keeping restrictions on food sales – defend their positions on specious grounds of national security, as if meeting and feeding Cubans posed a distinctive threat to our way of life, remember the words of Carl Schurz.

“I confidently trust that the American people will prove themselves … too wise not to detect the false pride or the dangerous ambitions or the selfish schemes which so often hide themselves under that deceptive cry of mock patriotism: ‘Our country, right or wrong!’ They will not fail to recognize that our dignity, our free institutions and the peace and welfare of this and coming generations of Americans will be secure only as we cling to the watchword of true patriotism: ‘Our country—when right to be kept right; when wrong to be put right.’”

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With JetBlue Flight 387, Cuba Policy Changes Approach Cruising Altitude

September 2, 2016

“It had been so long since an airline in the United States flew a regularly scheduled flight to [Cuba],” the New York Times wrote Wednesday, “the last time it happened, the passengers flew on a propeller plane.”

While passengers who got onto JetBlue’s historic Flight 387 in Ft. Lauderdale buckled their seatbelts aboard an Airbus 320, with jet engines and weight-saving composite materials, what really separated them from travelers on the last regularly scheduled commercial flight in 1961 was more than vast improvements in technology.

They departed Florida and landed in Santa Clara, Cuba in an entirely different era and political context.

Think of it. Florida, a vortex of pro-embargo, anti-travel sentiment, grounded in the Cold War experience of the Cuban-American community, was now the scene of a spectacle heralding the resumption of commercial flights to Cuba.

Passengers, who arrived at their departure gate serenaded by salsa music, witnessed Cuba’s Ambassador to the United States, Jose Cabañas, joining Robin Hayes, CEO of JetBlue, in a ribbon-cutting ceremony celebrating the first flight in 55 years. Among them were Anthony Foxx, the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, and a 53-year-old passenger Dominic Santana, who told NBC News, “I want to get to discover the country where I was born.”

Upon exiting the plane, Secretary Foxx posted a statement on the Transportation Department’s blog, calling the flight an “historic occasion” and announcing the names of eight airlines “that will begin scheduled flights to Havana as early as this fall.” Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes tweeted “Today’s commercial flight from U.S. to Cuba is result of normalizing relations and ending 50 years of failed policy.”

Cuban officials focused less on the moment and more on its potential. At the airport in Ft. Lauderdale, Ambassador Cabañas said in a statement, “Cuba is ready to expand bilateral relations on civil aviation based on mutual respect, professionalism and reciprocity.” Josefina Vidal, the chief diplomat for the U.S. desk at Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, observed, “Regular flights will only reach their potential when the travel ban part of the blockade is lifted.”

The JetBlue flight – and all it represents – helps to bring the days of ending travel restrictions on U.S. residents and lifting the embargo against all forms of two-way trade much closer.

For starters, changes in policy and technology are contributing to a virtuous circle of travel affecting U.S. politics. As Collin Laverty, president of Cuba Educational Travel, told USA Today, “The fact that you can go online and book your flight with JetBlue or Delta that legitimizes the whole process in the eyes of Americans who had been on the fence before.”

As more visitors from the U.S. go to Cuba, that will also increase contacts in places across the island and provide travel-related service income to businesses which have not yet benefitted as Habaneros have from the loosening of restrictions on travel.

Commercial flights are also cheaper than the charter services that have been serving the Cuban market for decades, and this has policy implications, too. By reaching beyond Havana for destinations like Santa Clara, Camagüey, Cienfuegos, and Santiago de Cuba, a broader range of more affordable flights will increase the attractiveness of visiting Cuba for diaspora populations across the United States who have yet to visit their families on the island.

Within the precincts and places where the politically powerful diaspora community lives, we have seen the connection between the rising number of CubanAmerican family visits to the island and the increasing support for President Obama’s policy opening to Cuba.

Which takes us back to the scene at the Ft. Lauderdale airport. Settled in behind the controls of Flight 387 were Captain Mark Luaces and First Officer Francisco Barreras, ABC News reported, the sons of Cuban immigrants. As the plane was pushed back from the gate, it was flanked by men holding the flags of Cuba and the United States – in Florida!

We wondered what the loudest, most vigilant voices among the Florida politicians who oppose the opening to Cuba made of this. When we looked at the Twitter accounts and the websites of Sen. Marco Rubio (FL) and Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-27), Carlos Curbelo (FL-26), and Mario Díaz-Balart (FL-25), we could not find one tweet or press release protesting JetBlue’s flight (although we did learn that Mr. Díaz-Balart is a member of the Contaminated Drywall Caucus).

Not everyone was silent. Senator Robert Menendez (NJ) expressed his convictions to a reporter for NJTV, saying, “all we’re doing [in resuming commercial flights] is enriching the Castro regime at the expense of human rights and democracy.” But the hardliners in the Florida delegation, especially in an election year, could not bring themselves to oppose the profits and jobs that come by opening another airport and another airline to the Cuba market, or gainsay the right of a family, as NBC News reported, to book a flight to Cuba so they could get married and baptize their kids.

That, ultimately, is why the remaining restrictions on legal travel to Cuba cannot survive. Times have changed, as Flight 387 demonstrated so powerfully, and ideology should not stand in the way of families being together.

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