By Abstaining at UN, U.S. Speaks Truth Through Power

October 28, 2016

A rarity occurred at the United Nations on Wednesday.

Thirty-two seconds into her speech to the General Assembly, U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power was interrupted by applause. You can watch the video here, courtesy of Progreso Weekly, and time it for yourself.

Her first paragraph read:

For more than 50 years, the United States had a policy aimed at isolating the government of Cuba. For roughly half of those years, UN Member States have voted overwhelmingly for a General Assembly resolution that condemns the U.S. embargo and calls for it to be ended. The United States has always voted against this resolution. Today the United States will abstain.

The roots of “abstain” are in 14th-century French. It means “to withhold oneself,” or to “restrain oneself from doing or enjoying something.” Normally, abstention is associated with virtue which, the Stoics taught us, is its own reward.

Yet, upon her mention of the word “abstain,” the General Assembly nearly explodes with applause and, seconds later, Ambassador Power grins (perhaps thinking to herself, “best day ever!”).

For 24 consecutive years, the United States made defending the embargo its losing, lonely cause, joined only by Israel, which stood with us during the last roll call in 2015, when Cuba’s resolution against the U.S. embargo carried the General Assembly by a vote of 191-2.

After speaking its truth through Power, the administration changed the tally on the resolution, which passed the General Assembly 191 to zero. Perhaps more important, its expression of virtue through abstention exposed the vice implicit in support for the embargo itself.

“Blessed is the man,” George Eliot said, “who having nothing to say, abstains from giving wordy evidence of the fact.” By contrast, the hardliners who demanded the easy, deceptive clarity of a “no” vote on the resolution, gave wordy evidence to their injury.

By voting to abstain, “The administration turned its back on U.S. law and the suffering Cuban people,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce said. Congressman Mario Díaz-Balart called the abstention “another shameless concession to the Castro regime.” Mauricio Claver-Carone, executive director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, called it “perhaps the most egregious breach” of President Barack Obama’s constitutional responsibilities and oath of office. Senator Bob Menéndez called it “shameful.”

At long last, the Obama administration, which voted “no” year after year, as the most devout critics of its engagement policy wanted, no longer had the stomach for it. As Ben Rhodes, President Obama’s Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications, and a principal architect of the U.S.-Cuba rapprochement, explained in his tweet on Wednesday, there is “no reason to vote to defend a failed policy we oppose.”

Ambassador Power argued that abstaining on the vote, like lifting the embargo itself, is a statement of our values, not an abandonment of them. “While our governments continue to disagree on fundamental questions of human rights,” she said, “we have found a way to discuss these issues in a respectful and reciprocal manner.”

She called the simple, but profoundly expressive act of abstaining “a small step.” And then concluded, “May there be many, many more – including, we hope, finally ending the U.S. embargo once and for all.”


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Beyond irreversible: An embargo-free Cuba policy seems more and more possible

October 21, 2016

The embargo is a little like the 2016 election. Everybody wants to know, when will it be over?

Short answer is: Not yet, but the end is coming into view. Here’s one reason why.

For decades, the debate over U.S. policy toward Cuba stalled because the beneficiaries of ending the embargo were largely invisible, while its greatest defenders were visible, powerful, and determined not to lose. This imbalance made the prospects for change seem eternally grim.

As if led by the hidden hand of a community organizer, the beneficiaries of a more open, reciprocal relationship with Cuba have emerged these last eight years; starting with Cuban Americans who used their travel and remittance rights, expanded in 2009, to visit the island in droves, support their families, and seed the new businesses they started and help them grow.

Cuban Americans have since been joined by other beneficiaries of open travel and trade policies – the airlines, ferries, hotel managers, finance, and telecom firms, for example – with a deep stake in protecting the new policies and making them irreversible.

Since the White House issued its Presidential Policy Directive and additional regulatory changes a week ago, the list of increasingly visible, vested interests is growing in profoundly important and practical ways.

If you have cancer or diabetes, or know someone who does, your future health and well-being are affected by new Treasury rules that allow U.S. scientists “to freely collaborate with Cuban counterparts on everything from cancer therapies to combatting the Zika virus,” as Science Magazine reported.

An impressive list of Cuban medical breakthroughs – many undergoing trials or available for use outside of the U.S. for the treatment of lung and gastric cancers, diabetic foot ulcers, and other serious conditions – could soon be within reach for American doctors and their patients.

Access to these treatments is likely to lower drug prices, as Modern Healthcare reports. The new policy, which gives pharmaceuticals developed in Cuba a clearer regulatory path to being imported and sold, “could bring [Cuba’s] cheaper, reputable medicines to the U.S. if they’re approved by the Food and Drug Administration.”

Beyond health care, the new policies will create opportunities for U.S. businesses in Cuba that will yield profits and jobs here at home. As trade analysts have observed:

  • The new rules allow U.S. construction companies and contractors to build and repair infrastructure systems in Cuba including public transportation, water and waste management, electricity generation and distribution, hospitals, as well as public housing and schools.
  • They authorize the export of consumer goods including goods sold online, which will boost the development and growth of e-commerce in Cuba, allow U.S. companies in e-commerce to expand their consumer base, and further drive accessibility of the internet in Cuba.
  • They also empower “U.S. companies to develop, negotiate, and finalize business opportunities in Cuba for goods, services, or a combination of both,” and sign contracts contingent on getting regulatory approval. Prior to last week, companies had to seek regulatory approval first, which often scotched their chances to do any business in Cuba at all.

As the trade experts commented, “This is a big deal.”

Crowding the stage further with Cuba policy reform beneficiaries, we could mention passengers seeking seats with the airlines who are now selling one-way flights to Cuba for as little as $54, or the writers at Travel Weekly, who worried about protecting their sector’s gains under the banner headline “Trump’s Cuba policy could prove a setback for travel industry.”

Finally, there are pro-policy reform candidates running for office in Florida whose campaigns are now buoyed by thousands of Cuban Americans from both political parties who want the trade and travel bans to end. This week, for example, the Miami Herald endorsed Rep. Patrick Murphy (FL-18) in his run against the incumbent Senator Marco Rubio in part because “He supports the diplomatic opening to Cuba.” In addition, “(t)he Latin Builders Association, a prominent Miami industry group founded by Cuban exiles, recently endorsed Mrs. Clinton, the first time in its 45-year history it has supported a Democratic presidential nominee,” as the Wall Street Journal reported. This is in Florida, the ground zero of strident anti-embargo activity.

Peter Kornbluh, writing for The Nation, posed the question begged by the Obama diplomatic breakthrough of 2014 this way: “Could political, commercial, and cultural bridges between the United States and Cuba be constructed—and firmly reinforced—so that the process of normalization could withstand current and future enemies of reconciliation?”

The answer is yes, as the President’s reforms – surely irreversible – have shifted power from the embargo’s most strident supporters to the emerging beneficiaries of openness with Cuba.

No, the embargo isn’t over. But the process for ending it is firmly underway – thanks, in large part, to President Obama’s organizing vision that changed the political economy around this issue, which had stalled progress far too long.

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Obama’s Imprint on Cuba Policy: Historic. More than Rum & Cigars. More Left to Do.

October 14, 2016

Today, “Click Bait” and U.S.-Cuba relations met at the intersection of Rum and Cigars.

Chances are, if you read even one story about President Obama’s latest – and some say his last – Cuba policy announcement, the headline referred to “Cigars” or “Cigars and Rum.”

Even the august New York Times was unable to resist: “Obama, Cementing New Ties With Cuba, Lifts Limits on Cigars and Rum.”

Fair enough. But, let the word go forth – to paraphrase President Kennedy – that the torch being passed in this new generation of Cuba policy is about more than lighting that box of Montecristo cigars you want that BFF of yours to bring home from Havana.

The White House today issued something called a Presidential Policy Directive (PPD-43) devoted to “United States-Cuba Normalization.”

At its core, the directive breaks, clearly and comprehensively, from the Cold War mold of U.S. policy toward Cuba, by setting forth, as the New York Times described it, “a new United States policy to lift the Cold War trade embargo and end a half-century of clandestine plotting against Cuba’s government.”

Going forward, it envisions other changes in U.S. policy – from ending the embargo to integrating Cuba completely in U.S. and global commerce. In doing so, it affirms the idea that both economies and both societies will benefit from normalized relations with one another.

Since President Obama revealed his diplomatic breakthrough with Cuba on December 17, 2014, we have written here about working to make his policy reforms irreversible. The directive he issued today is a historic step in that direction.

Across a dozen pages, it lays out the U.S. vision for normalization and how it fits with U.S. security interests, the goals for the new policy, and the actions required to implement the reforms the president has made. It spells out the roles and responsibilities for 16 federal departments and offices to achieve his goals. The directive offers a sharp reminder that until the embargo is lifted by Congress, normalization will not be complete.

In the context of U.S. politics, the directive sends a message to supporters and opponents of the Cuba opening – don’t reverse it, don’t stop it, do more. In this sense, it fixes our eyes – and the president’s successors – on the future.

Paradoxically, we cannot estimate the directive’s full value going forward, or evaluate its greatest vulnerability, without considering past presidential directives still hold a grip on U.S. policy.

Between 1982 and 1988, President Reagan issued more than a half-dozen National Security Decision Directives with policies as comprehensive as those articulated in President Obama’s directive issued today. Each of them – published publicly, but many with secret annexes – reflected his view of Cuba as a security threat to the U.S. that could only be combatted by measures aimed at overthrowing Cuba’s government.

Reagan’s directives ordered the departments of State and Defense, the CIA and the National Security Council to take actions that included speeding measures to tighten economic sanctions on Cuba; implementing plans to “raise the sense of threat to Cuba,” blacklisting ships calling at Cuban ports, curtailing tourism, and other efforts to “improve” the effectiveness and enforcement of the embargo; designing war plans for use against Cuba including an air/sea blockade; limiting family travel by Cuban Americans and imposing limits on financial support to their families, curbing scientific travel; cracking down on Cuba’s so-called abuse of humanitarian exceptions to the embargo; and providing support to Radio/TV Martí.

Within his executive authority, President Obama has tried to change everything that is wrong with imposing sanctions, dividing families, spreading fear, driving Cubans into poverty, and undermining Cuba by subversion, with what is right about diplomacy, empathy, exchange, respect, and a commitment to a common purpose.

In this respect, the directive sends a message to Cubans that U.S. policy will now support, not seek to undermine, their role in designing their own future.

It also offers reassurance to Cuban skeptics of U.S. intentions, at the highest levels, who devoted their lives to stopping what earlier directives had in mind for their government.

“As if to underscore a stark shift from decades of United States policy toward Cuba, which were marked by spying and suspicion,” the New York Times reported, “the document specifically requires that American-led “democracy programs” — which the Castro government has denounced as secret efforts to destabilize the country — be “transparent.”

In the words of Susan Rice, the President’s National Security Advisor, “The United States used to have secret plans for Cuba. Now our policy is out in the open – and online – for everyone to read. What you see is what you get.”

This alone merits a call to break out the cigars and rum.

But, the unfinished work of the Obama administration – ending an embargo with its crushing weight on Cuba’s economy, removing restrictions on U.S. travel to the island, even silencing the propaganda still broadcast by Radio/TV Martí – must be completed before the promise of normalization is fully redeemed.

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Disaster Rains in the Caribbean; Will Peace Reign in Colombia?

October 7, 2016

Over the last few days, Hurricane Matthew, which is now battering Florida, tore through the Caribbean doing what natural disasters always do – taking nearly everything from people with next to nothing, and testing the decency of those who see them struggling from a comfortable distance.

Baracoa in eastern Cuba was devastated by the Category 4 hurricane, with 90% of its homes damaged or destroyed. The United Nations reported Thursday that Guantánamo and Holguín provinces suffered “severe socioeconomic damage.” The storm laid waste to homes, infrastructure, agriculture, and food reserves. Nearly half a million banana plants and eight million tomato seedlings were affected, according to news reports – a blow that a nation already vulnerable to food insecurity can hardly afford.

Cuba’s resilient civil defense system appears to have risen to the occasion. Prior to the storm, the United Nations reported, “more than 377,000 people were evacuated, 1,640 metric tons of food were pre-positioned in safe areas and measures were taken to protect communities and infrastructure threatened by strong winds, rains, storm surges and floods.” Up to now, there are no reports of fatalities in Cuba, a nation of 11 million people, as a result of the storm.

The damage inflicted by Hurricane Matthew on the over ten million people of Haiti is incalculably worse. Haiti’s government estimated yesterday that 350,000 of its citizens need assistance, a figure likely to climb. This afternoon, Reuters reported the death toll had climbed to over 800, with homelessness and outbreaks of cholera “claiming more lives.” It could hardly matter to the survivors that the grim scorekeepers who track such things determined that only Haiti’s 2010 earthquake had inflicted greater damage.

No matter the toll, Haitians need help, and lots of it.

According to Reuters, “the U.S. Defense Department has about 150 people in Haiti now, and ‘weather permitting’ that number will grow to a couple of hundred over the weekend.” USAID has also contributed funds and personnel, and is working in cooperation with relief missions supported by the U.S. Southern Command.

In Haiti, Cuba is already present and pitching in. Members of the Cuban Medical Brigade, some 648 Cuban doctors and other professionals, remain on site, Granma reports. They are expected to offer medical care and disease-prevention efforts in the aftermath of the storm. Cuba has been a steady presence in Haiti since before the earthquake.

If our readers want to donate to relief efforts in Haiti, we suggest supporting CARE, which is responding in Haiti with clean water, food assistance, and emergency supplies. You can navigate to their donation page here. Haitians and the organizations attempting to help them will appreciate your generosity.

Such a generous spirit was reflected Thursday in a tweet by José Ramón Cabañas, Cuba’s ambassador to the United States. Well aware that Hurricane Matthew left Cuba heading for landfall in Florida, he expressed on his country’s behalf, “our solidarity toward the population of South Florida as it now prepares to face the onslaught of Matthew.”

But, to paraphrase John Kennedy, we ask not what Cuba can do for us (although the truthful answer is plenty); instead, we ask what we in the United States might do for Cuba.

If you want to offer private donations to support recovery from Hurricane Matthew, here are a few options. Our esteemed friends at MEDICC ask for donations sent to Global Links to help send medical supplies both to Haiti and eastern Cuba.

We also recommend support for Oxfam America. Oxfam, which has operated on the island for more than two decades, is already coordinating with Cuba’s government and working in Baracoa. On site, Oxfam is stressing “WASH,” water, sanitation, and hygiene, and will provide ongoing support in repairing homes, construction, and other services.

Unfortunately, the U.S.-Cuba normalization process – which has a bilateral focus on disaster prevention, relief and response – has not gone far enough to make donations in responses to crises easier, or to make government-to-government assistance acceptable. Humanitarian aid from USAID to Cuba, for example, is off the table, because the agency is a legal conduit for money to overthrow Cuba’s government. Even after our government gets USAID out of the regime change business in Cuba, it will take years to rebuild trust before official help is even considered, much less accepted.

Until then, it is up to our NGOs using the tools of citizen diplomacy to engage with Cuban counterparts on longer-term problems that affect both countries – like food insecurity – in ways that reflect our common humanity. The task is urgent; any weatherman can tell you that.

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