Sovereignty First!

January 27, 2017

Think you had a bad day? It could be worse. You could be a suitcase belonging to the President of Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto.

Packed and unpacked; for the meeting of Caribbean and Latin American leaders in the Dominican Republic. There, President Peña Nieto was a no-show; his trip cancelled without explanation.

Packed again for his meeting with President Trump at the White House on January 31, 2017, a beautiful, historic day, his suitcase got caught up in immigration politics. After the White House issued two Executive Orders on immigration, President Peña Nieto had little choice. He told the Mexican people in a televised address, “I regret and disapprove of the decision by the United States to continue with the construction of the wall,” and then broke the news to his luggage – their trip to Washington was off.

The president’s suitcase? It was a distraction. Distraction is the elegant ingredient of magic – by waving a shiny object, a wizard can pull the audience’s attention where the action isn’t happening, leaving the trick to remain undetected.


Journalists were dutifully distracted reporting each time one of President Trump’s nominees disagreed with him in public (think Russia and climate change) in their confirmation hearings. But the press has paid far less attention when his nominees agreed with him in private; for example, when they signaled Senators in writing about Cuba policy changes yet to be revealed.

Since Friday, two Questions for the Record (QFRs) have been released on Capitol Hill. These are canned questions sent by Senators to obtain canned responses by nominees to nail down commitments by the administration to policy changes that were promised in the presidential election campaign.

For example, when Treasury Secretary-designate Steve Mnuchin was asked if he’d reverse the executive orders by President Obama that loosened restrictions on travel and trade, he told the Senate Finance Committee, “If confirmed, I will enforce all statutorily-mandated Cuba sanctions to the fullest extent of the law.”

When asked if he’d stop American companies from doing business with state-owned entities controlled by the Cuban military he responded “If confirmed, I commit to fully and effectively enforcing all sanctions prescribed by [the Helms-Burton law] and other Cuba sanctions legislation.”

When asked if he’d favor U.S. farmers and manufacturers doing business in Cuba by supporting past easing of the sanctions, he said, essentially, “no.” Or in his words, “If confirmed as Secretary, I will implement and enforce Cuba sanctions pursuant to their statutory construct.”

President Trump can’t be paying Mr. Mnuchin by the word; otherwise, he’d be using more of them. In any case, what he said is news.

More discursive responses – by which we mean disheartening and troubling –came from UN Ambassador Nikki Haley. The answers she submitted to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee before winning confirmation suggests the “fact-checkers” left her alone with the ideologues while she was polishing her answers.

When asked, “Do you agree that the U.S. should help support private entrepreneurs in Cuba with training or other assistance, so they can build businesses, market their products and services, and compete with state-owned enterprises?” She said, “Unfortunately, Cuba does not have private entrepreneurs and working independently is not a right but a privilege granted only to supporters of the regime.”

[That’s just wrong, as the BBC and a million other reputable sources confirm.]

When asked,Do you agree that after more than half a century the U.S. embargo against Cuba has failed to achieve any of its principle objectives?” She replied, “We should be clear about a few things. The goal of the embargo was never to cause regime change, but rather to raise the costs of the Cuban government’s bad behavior.”

[That was a whopper, as this Voice of America op-ed, and a vast historical record shows.]

When asked, “Will you continue the recent practice of abstaining to the UN General Resolution pertaining to the statutory U.S. embargo on Cuba?” She said, “No.”

[Too bad. Ambassador Samantha Power’s speech when the U.S. abstained on the embargo resolution last year was a truly great moment.]

And when Ambassador Haley was asked, “Do you support continued diplomatic relations with Cuba?” She submitted an 85-word response that didn’t directly answer the question; which, by today’s standards, means she testified truthfully.


President Raúl Castro spoke about U.S.-Cuba relations in remarks before the gathering of Caribbean and Latin American leaders we mentioned at the outset. “Cuba and the United States can cooperate and coexist in a civilized manner, respecting differences and promoting all that benefits both countries and peoples,” he said, “but it should not be expected that to do so Cuba will make concessions inherent to its sovereignty and independence.”

On the surface, this coincides with President Trump’s inaugural address, where he said: “We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather let it shine as an example.”

That could be read as respect for the sovereignty of others. But it’s probably just a distraction.

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

Cuba, Twitter, and the Confusion over Day One

January 20, 2017

On Inauguration Day, just after we craned our necks to trace the flight taking former President Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama out of town, this tweet caught our eye.

It read “This is what you see from the #Cuba seat at the opening ceremony at the Capitol,” and auto-played a video shot by Cuba’s Ambassador to the United States, José Ramón Cabañas, with a slow pan from the flag-bedecked U.S. Capitol to the crowd below.

A bit later, our phones stirred again with this message from the Ambassador, “#Cuba invited for the first time in many years to an Inaugural Ceremony at Capitol Hill #US.”

Thinking back to the Obamas aboard the Marine Corps helicopter, it was nice to see a core accomplishment of his Cuba policy alive and well after the transfer of power. Restoring diplomatic relations put Cuba’s ambassador back into the diplomatic corps, and foreign diplomats attend ceremonies like the Inauguration.

Of course, Ambassador Cabañas was there, with his smartphone.

Today, we were expecting to swallow a cascade of bitter pills, and as we prepared for publication, we were prepared for the bad news we expect to come.

After all, the President and the Vice-President both pledged during the fall campaign to spend Day One undoing the executive orders on which nearly all of President Obama’s Cuba policy initiatives were based.

However, this week the Trump transition exhibited confusion about the definition of “Day One.”

First, Mr. Trump told the Times of London “…[D]ay one – which I will consider to be Monday as opposed to Friday or Saturday. Right? I mean my day one is gonna be Monday because I don’t want to be signing and get it mixed up with lots of celebration.”

Next, Reuters reported he was preparing to sign executive actions on Inauguration Day to “roll back outgoing President Obama’s policies.”

Then, incoming White House press secretary Sean Spicer told CNN that then-President-elect Trump was “still working through which ones he wants to deal with tomorrow (Inauguration Day) versus Monday or Tuesday.”

The debate over when Day One started could’ve come right out of the movie Inherit the Wind, where the protagonists argue over how to calculate the length of Creation since the Sun wasn’t invented until day four.

So far, no big announcements. This afternoon, when we visited the White House online, all we could only see was a six-paragraph definition of what an “America First Foreign Policy” might entail. Even though the White House hasn’t posted any press releases about Cuba – let’s not be confused. The dismantling of the Obama Cuba policy has already begun.

It took place last week and this week in hearing rooms on Capitol Hill:

  • When Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson testified that Cuba has yet to be held accountable for its record on human rights, and told Senators he would review whether Cuba should have been removed from the U.S. list of State Sponsors of Terrorism;
  • When Governor Nikki Haley, Ambassador-designate to the United Nations, told Senators she’d use U.S. funding of the UN as leverage against Cuba’s and China’s participation on the Human Rights Council; and,
  • When General James Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee there should be “no” military-to-military engagement with Cuba. And when the Committee posed the question, “Do you think it would be beneficial to U.S. Security Interests to seek to cooperate in areas of overlap?” The General, whose nomination to be Secretary of Defense was confirmed today by the Senate, replied “Significant differences between the U.S. and Cuba would have to be addressed before I could recommend that the Department of Defense explore security cooperation with its Cuban counterparts.”

Do we expect further action on Cuba, later today or soon? We do.

Our friend Chris Sabatini, editor of, did a first-rate job identifying and profiling top members of the Trump Latin America Transition Team. You can read about them here. These folks, with ample backgrounds as anti-communists who oppose the Castro government, didn’t land at U.S. agencies for window dressing. We will be hearing from them in due course, and we expect their labors to vindicate the President’s promises to march normalization backward.

We just don’t know how far or how fast.

In the meanwhile, however, if General Mattis is interested in ironing out the differences he sees between the U.S. and Cuba, Ambassador Cabañas is pretty easy to reach.

Mr. Secretary, you can find him on Twitter.

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

With Obama’s Wet-foot/Dry-foot Mic Drop, Trump-era Cuba Policy Set to Begin

January 13, 2017

President Obama made his first Cuba policy move – giving Cuban Americans the unlimited right to visit Cuba and to provide unrestricted remittances to their families – on the 83rd day of his first term.

He made his final move (we think) last night – ending an unfair immigration policy that gave Cubans who landed on U.S. soil a virtually unrestricted right to become legal residents – with just eight days left in his final term.

In 2009, he vindicated the rights of Cuba families through the exercise of his executive power. In doing so, he gave the community previously known as the greatest obstacle to Cuba policy reform skin in the game, and a reason to get on the right side of history.

The bilateral agreement he announced last night, which ends the U.S. “wet-foot/dry-foot” migration policy and includes actions by Cuba to reform its immigration laws, gives lie to the myth that Cuba has given us nothing and that all concessions have come from us.

There is an elegant symmetry to his opening and closing acts on Cuba, but there is more to the journey he traveled from the early days to late night of his presidency than symmetry alone.

Following five decades of policies based on hostility and isolation, which his predecessors either entered or exited office accepting and passing along as received wisdom, President Obama struck off in a very different direction.

We complained from time to time about how long it took the President to articulate and activate each step in his reform agenda, but we cannot quarrel with the results.

He left a mark not only with his travel and trade reforms – which freed American visitors and U.S. companies to explore Cuba in unprecedented numbers – but also on the half-million Cuban entrepreneurs running businesses buoyed by the relaxation of restrictions, and the vast increase in internet connectivity on the island boosted by the relaxation of tensions.

His accomplishments are many, as we describe here, and as Engage Cuba documents there. And if you don’t believe us, the President wasn’t shy about mentioning them in his Farewell Address, nor was Secretary Kerry in his exit memo from State Department.

After you get through the regulatory reforms and the results they produced, the Obama policy at its core was about treating the Cuban people with respect, and accepting the Cuban government as sovereign – after dispensing with the notion that Washington could squeeze, starve and isolate the country to force the surrender of its system.

For reversing course on a failed policy, and basing his new Cuba policy on these powerful insights, President Obama leaves office next week having made astonishing progress toward normalizing relations with Cuba, and with sky-high U.S. public approval – and historic levels of support among Cuban Americans.

Last night, his White House staff revealed the new immigration policy without much fanfare. We heard our briefing in a conference call with less than a dozen of us listening, amazed at this last bold act at this late hour to deepen the process of reform he began in 2009. Cuba policy got its mic drop on a Thursday night, with eight days to go in his presidency.

Two hours after we hung up our phones, Burgess Everett, a correspondent with Politico, tweeted this: “Rubio talked to Pence tonight, is happy to have a ‘new administration committed to discarding the failed Cuba policy of the last 2 years.’”

As it ends, and so it begins.

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

Cuba Policy, 2 Weeks Before Inauguration

January 6, 2017

Since we celebrated the second anniversary of President Obama’s decision to restore relations with Cuba last month, the forces supporting reform are using every spare minute to make the policy – here’s a bad locution for you – as irreversible as possible before President Trump takes office.

“Amid uncertainty about Cuba policy,” Alaska Public Media reported, Alaska Airlines launched a daily flight from the West Coast to Havana, using “a Boeing 737-900ER, which carries 181 passengers, for its Cuba flights.” This is Alaska Airlines, the only carrier awarded a West Coast route, capitalizing on a big bet, with a tweet heralding its January 5th inaugural flight “It’s a historic day.”

“As demand continues to grow for cruises to Cuba,” the Miami Herald reported, Carnival Corporation’s Fathom Brand also got attention by announcing it was combining Cuba and the Dominican Republic as destinations in a single itinerary. Trips on its 704-passenger Adonia vessel, focused on social impact, will start at $599, cheaper than other American cruise line offerings to Cuba, and are being bundled with service opportunities in the Dominican Republic and people-to-people exchanges in Cuba.

Travel to Cuba, as a result of the Obama reforms, is growing substantially, but trade is also working its way into the picture. Ever heard of “artisanal charcoal”? Starting January 18th, shipments of artisanal charcoal, produced by independent worker cooperatives in Cuba, will begin making their way into the U.S., having been granted approval by the U.S. government to be the first export from Cuba allowed into the United States in over a half-century. Warm up your pizza ovens!

The President’s policy of engagement enabled Google to ink a deal with Cuba’s government to accelerate connectivity with services like Gmail and YouTube. An important byproduct of the normalization process has been an increase in connectivity in Cuba, lower prices for Cubans to access Wi-Fi, and implementation by Cuba’s government of a project it planned to bring internet into residences in Havana, although overall rates of access remain very low.

Other tangible examples of engagement have been rolled out to remind the public, policymakers, and probably the President-elect that the Cuba policy offers real value. These included the announcement that clinical trials are starting to test Cuba’s lung cancer vaccine on patients in the U.S., along with an environmental protection agreement between Cuban and U.S. scientists to save coral reefs in our region using very special techniques.

As might be expected, Secretary of State John Kerry heralded the benefits of the President’s new Cuba policy in his “exit memo” released this week on the administration’s foreign policy accomplishments. But Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, caught our attention in his otherwise scathing review of the President’s “shaky legacy” on human rights, with a grudging concession that the normalization of relations with Cuba “was a positive human rights step” and that Mr. Obama, despite other shortcomings, did speak during his trip to Cuba about the need for progress on human rights.

During the remaining 13 days of the Obama presidency, we expect others to shine a light on the accomplishments of the opening even as we eye the clouds gathering in the skies above.

For example, as we read the celebratory coverage of the Alaska Airlines flight into Havana, we took note of comments by John Kirby, vice president of capacity planning for the carrier. “Will the incoming Trump administration change the rules?” a reporter asked.  “Your guess is as good as mine at this point,” Kirby said. “Obviously, there is always a potential that things could change. But since service has started, it is difficult to envision us taking a big step backwards.”

We also saw the news that investment analysts downgraded their estimates for shares of JetBlue’s stocks “on rising costs associated with expansion into new markets like Cuba,” Raymond James said. As we previously reported, price cuts and other competitive pressures are causing some carriers that recently opened new commercial routes to Cuba to cut back the number of flights they are offering.

This is what the hardliners, who are hoping that President Trump reverses the Obama opening, have wanted all along. Travel to Cuba – which we believe is good for both countries – helps to pay for Cubans’ health care and public education and stimulates the economy for the country’s public- and private-sector businesses. That’s why the opponents of the policy want to cut it back, or cut it off entirely.

José Cárdenas, a former Bush administration Latin America advisor, writing last month in Foreign Policy, urged reversing Obama’s travel policies and upping Washington’s spending on covert programs to topple Havana’s government. It was what five former Reagan and Bush administration foreign policy functionaries argued in their letter to President-elect Trump released this week. It read, in part, “Tourism, purchases of Cuban goods, and partnering with government entities should be prohibited, in accordance with current U.S. law.”

Dragging U.S.-Cuba policy back to its pre-Obama limits has a number of unappealing, even repulsive dimensions. It reflects the naïve belief, as the renowned Emily Morris explained in Foreign Affairs this week, that a sanctions-based policy devoted to wrecking the Cuban economy in the hopes it will be replaced by a free market system ignores what the last six or so decades have taught us about “the country’s history of weathering difficult storms. Cuba faces serious economic challenges, but its system has proved resilient, and the island’s future is likely to be one of reform rather than revolution.”

Reform is where President Raúl Castro has placed his bet. While assuring the hardliners listening to his December address before the National Assembly, “We’re not heading nor will we head toward capitalism,” he also called for overcoming an obsolete mentality full of prejudices against foreign investment.

No matter what Cuba does or fails to do now, the battle to preserve the Obama opening against a feared onslaught by his successor is more likely to be won in Washington than Havana. That is why, as Peter Kornbluh describes in The Nation, “A full-court press to convince the incoming administration to stay the course on Cuba—high-profile media interviews, opinion pieces, press conferences, Congressional lobbying, reports by moderate Cuban-American leaders, letters signed by Cuban entrepreneurs, and behind-the-scenes approaches to Trump appointees—is being launched around several key arguments”:

  • Engagement with Cuba is good for U.S. business
  • Engagement with Cuba is good for Cuban businesses, and
  • Engagement with Cuba is good for U.S. interests

If the 45th President is sincerely interested in getting a better deal, and not just pulling out the Obama policy root and branch, Professor Julie Sagebien has pulled together a remarkable list of suggestions based on the old dealmaker’s tactics. We hope he reads them before making any hasty decisions.

All of this activity is focused on preserving a new approach to Cuba, just two years old, which has done much more for the United States and the people of Cuba than the Cold War policy Mr. Obama inherited at the outset of his presidency.

Will this campaign work? We’ll know in two weeks. For now, advocates are doing the best we can until the clock runs down. As the saying goes, it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. If we run out of candles, we can start using charcoal made from Cuban marabú. As the Chicago Tribune reported, “the first delivery is scheduled for Jan. 18, two days before the inauguration of Donald Trump as U.S. president.”

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