The McMaster of Cuba Policy Destiny

February 24, 2017

We’ve been reading an analysis about how a new approach to foreign policy went horribly wrong.

The President, we are told, came to office and dismantled essential elements of the National Security Council. He preferred to rely on task forces and an “inner club” of trusted advisors in national security and foreign affairs. His structural changes weakened access by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the president, whom the new administration viewed with suspicion. The old guard in the Pentagon was relegated to a “position of little influence.”

President John F. Kennedy’s ad hoc decision-making style, his freezing out of top military advisors, and diminishment of the National Security Council’s role backfired in the early months of his presidency. Without a formal systematic review, he went forward with the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. The invasion not only collapsed in failure, but also resulted in the President distancing himself from his senior military advisors and trusting them even less.

This practice of “consulting frankly only with his closest advisors, and his use of larger forums to validate decisions already made would transcend [Kennedy’s] administration,” the author writes, with its consequences spilling into President Johnson’s decisions and leading us deeper into Vietnam.

The responsibility for what he calls “one of the greatest American foreign policy disasters of the 20th century” lies with President Kennedy and the arrogance of the New Frontier, as well as with President Lyndon Johnson, who allowed domestic political considerations to dictate military strategy in the conduct of the war. But, echoing the title of his book, “Dereliction of Duty,” H.R. McMaster also calls out the Joint Chiefs of Staff for failing to confront President Johnson with their objections to his strategy for conducting the war, and deceiving the Congress by appearing to support it.

On Monday, as the author, Lt. General H.R. McMaster, became National Security Advisor, we could only imagine how he processed what occurred in the first month of the Trump Administration, and what that, in turn, could mean for the conduct of U.S. foreign policy going forward – including U.S. policy toward Cuba.

If Lt. General McMaster has priors on Cuba, we haven’t seen them. His passages on the Bay of Pigs and the Missile Crisis in “Dereliction of Duty” contained no bugle-blowing or hand-waving about “finishing the job” in Cuba. He may harbor such feelings, but we did not see them in his book or in this week’s coverage about his appointment to lead the National Security Council.

Once the administration’s review of Cuba policy concludes, and before the rollout of a new policy begins, Lt. General McMaster will have a chance to lead as he wishes members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had done some 50 years ago.

He knows what happens to U.S. foreign policy when the decision-making process is broken, when too much deference is given to domestic politics, and when the voices of reason, including our nation’s military, rest on the sidelines or fail to be heard: Foreign policy goes off the rails. That hurt us in Vietnam before; it can hurt us in making U.S. policy toward Cuba again.

The Washington Post called Lt. General McMaster a “soldier who can say, ‘no, sir.’” If he finds himself standing between the President and a plan to roll the last two years’ Cuba reforms back, we hope he makes his voice heard.

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Once Estranged, Couples Reunite Over a Quiet White House Meal with Cuba on the Menu

February 17, 2017

In case you missed it, President Trump made big news during his epic press conference at the White House this week. He broke bread with Senator Marco Rubio.

During the presidential primaries, then-candidate Trump and Sen. Rubio traded insults on the campaign trail, but then traded endorsements in advance of their successful runs for the presidency and reelection to the Senate.

Having won his election, Sen. Rubio resumed his plainspoken disagreements with the new President – tweeting one day, “We are not the same as #Putin,” and later adding his support for including the “Flynn situation” in the Senate Intelligence Committee probe of Russia’s interference in the U.S. election.

Both men now appear to have the situation in hand. Wednesday evening, as CNN reported, the President, the Senator, and their wives gathered for dinner in the Blue Room at the White House.

Things must have gone well. As President Trump said, “We had dinner with Senator Rubio and his wife, who is, by the way, lovely. And we had a really good discussion about Cuba because we have very similar views on Cuba.”

And now: President Trump is heading to Florida for a campaign-style rally at the Orlando-Melbourne International Airport on Saturday. What would Scooby say? Ruh-oh.

Politico, in a profile of Senator Bob Corker, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote that he, “like the rest of Washington…is still figuring out who’s actually in charge in the Trump White House and how to get things done given the multiple power centers that seem to be shaping foreign policy.” Sen. Rubio may have cracked the code.

During the final stretch of the 2016 presidential campaign, as we previously reported, Mr. Trump returned to Florida to reverse his prior support for lifting the embargo by adopting an anti-engagement position aligned with hardliners like Sen. Rubio and the three Cuban American representatives from South Florida. After the election, President-elect Trump stocked his transition team with advocates who want the U.S. to return to its Cold War posture of isolating and sanctioning Cuba.

Loyalty casts a long, influential shadow. Despite results showing that Mr. Trump lost Miami-Dade County – and lost the Cuban American vote nationally – he credits voters in the Cuban community for his win in Florida last November. As he said at his press conference, “Cuba was very good to me in the Florida election, you know, the Cuban people, Americans.”

In response, supporters of engagement with Cuba have massed around a retro strategy of trying interest the new administration in preserving the last administration’s reforms by presenting them with “the facts.”

Representative Tom Emmer (MN-6) related how closer relations with Cuba, including the economic impact of loosening restrictions on U.S. travel and trade, contributed to transformative changes on the island that are making life better for the Cuban people.

“Consider the following statistics,” Rep. Emmer writes in a column called Continuing the Shift on Cuba. “From 2008-2015: the number of mobile phone subscriptions in Cuba has increased to 3 million; the number of Wi-Fi hotspots on the island increased from zero to 65 by the end of 2015 and continues to grow; and the percentage of the island’s workforce in the Cuban non-agricultural private sector (which consists largely of self-employed entrepreneurs known as cuentapropistas) has grown from 17 to 29 percent.”

Pedro Freyre, a noted international lawyer and Columbia Law School Professor, laid out the economic consequences of shutting down travel and trade in the Orlando Sentinel. “A drastic change in U.S. policy toward Cuba would also result in a loss of U.S. jobs not only in the travel industry but more significantly in pharmaceutical manufacturing, and most sensitive of all, in the agricultural sector that currently does substantial business with Cuba.”

Even more, as the economist Ricardo Torres, writing for Progreso Weekly, says: A policy reversal would compromise the objectives that U.S. policy ought to be embracing.

Cuba, for its purposes, has engaged in evolutionary change for several decades, by deepening its engagement with the international economy. Dr. Torres writes: “Today, more people than ever are coming to Cuba. More Cubans travel abroad for various reasons than at any previous time. A growing number of businesses operate in the country, both commercial and investment companies.”

Then, he adds, “The transformation is huge, and several elements indicate that it can accelerate in the next several years.” So long as the U.S. doesn’t abruptly change course.

Politico contrasts the Democratic opposition to the Trump presidency, which it calls “divided and demoralized,” with Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham, who are “waging a public war of press releases against what they see as Trump’s dangerous challenge to America’s role in the world.”

“Rather than turning their fire on a prickly president who clearly takes criticism personally,” Politico says Sen. Corker is pursuing a third path, “arguing in the backstage councils of Capitol Hill that they should seek to influence Trump more quietly.”

He is almost certainly right; the question is whether he is too late. We’ll be watching what happens tomorrow in Orlando, and in further developments down the road, in case Sen. Rubio cracked the code by getting invited to a quiet White House dinner first.

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“Extreme Bipartisanship”

February 10, 2017

Three weeks into President Trump’s term, the debate over Cuba policy has yet to be joined.

Washington is immersed in an acid bath of partisanship.

The discussion about preserving engagement, diplomacy, travel, and trade with Cuba has been stilled by constitutional and foreign policy conflicts.

Cuba policy is being reviewed by the administration, under the radar –  a review conducted by opponents of diplomatic relations with Cuba’s government (although, news bulletin, Elliot Abrams, the veteran Cold Warrior, who was interviewed by President Trump to be Deputy Secretary of State, will not be among them).

Have you ever had one of those catastrophic slips…which are actually over in an instant…but time slows down and you feel yourself falling…you know you’re going to hit the ground and there’s nothing you can do to stop it?  That feeling of inevitability could easily pervade our outlook for action by the administration on Cuba.

Except – there are brave souls, public servants, kicking against the pull of political gravity, who see a way forward on Cuba. In these times, that makes them unique.

At a moment when some attach the adverb “extreme” to a participle like “vetting” to weaponize language, we could say these leaders are making progress by engaging in “extreme bipartisanship.”

They are going against the grain and building coalitions across party lines on one of the few issues that can bring legislators together: Cuba.

Leani García, writing for Americas Quarterly, calls Representatives Rick Crawford of Arkansas, Tom Emmer of Minnesota, and Mark Sanford of South Carolina “The GOP Congressmen Who Could Sell Trump on Cuba.”

All are “vocal supporters of the new president,” and each has sponsored legislation aimed at “upending two pillars of the U.S.’ embargo on Cuba: travel and trade” – all bills with lengthening lists of bipartisan supporters.

Rep. Emmer, along with principal Democratic cosponsor Rep. Kathy Castor of Florida, has sponsored legislation to lift the Cuba embargo, with support from eight Democrats and seven Republicans.

Rep. Sanford, author of the bill to legalize travel to Cuba for all Americans, has support from eight Republicans and four Democrats, including principal cosponsor Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts.

Rep. Crawford, author of legislation to boost agriculture sales to Cuba, has 22 Republican and 10 Democratic co-sponsors.

These leaders are also working to merge the policies in their legislation with the narratives that drive their involvement in politics. As Ms. Garciá says, Rep. Emmer promotes his campaign to lift the embargo by emphasizing “that free markets are a fundamental American value,” and that trade offers U.S. citizens a chance “to build and strengthen relationships with the Cuban people.”

Rep. Sanford’s Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act of 2017, as Americas Quarterly reported, is about dropping restrictions on travel that he says run counter to American values.

Rep. Crawford is selling his bill on agriculture exports to Cuba in language that conforms to the President’s views on trade: “(The president) has stated many times – and I agree – that bilateral trade agreements are the best trade agreements because (they’re) easier to manage, easier to enforce … and they’re more transparent,” Crawford said. “I think he’ll look at this as an opportunity to engage in bilateral trade that’s meaningful for both, but a good deal for the United States.”

These legislators have even greater traction by operating with backing from the House Cuba Working Group, an informal advocacy group on Capitol Hill whose members by rule are drawn from both political parties.

The Brookings Institution, which recently examined the threats of corrosive partisanship, distrust, and dysfunction in Congress, believes that caucuses like the Cuba Working Group offer a promising way to rebuild bipartisanship on Capitol Hill.

Research shows these caucuses build the “cross-partisan relationships and shared knowledge needed for legislative consensus” in important policy areas, and that legislators who pursue bipartisan strategies are more effective than those with partisan records, and that cooperating with colleagues across the aisle increases their probability of reelection.

The effort to preserve and build on the past administration’s opening to Cuba is going to be an uphill battle. The smart money, as former Pentagon official Frank Mora said this week, is on those who want engagement to fail. The smart money is not even on the airline industry executives representing carriers with routes to Cuba (Delta AirlinesJetBlue AirwaysSouthwest Airlines, Alaska Air Group) who met with President Trump this week in the White House and who, according to the meeting transcript, said nothing publicly about preserving travel to Cuba.

But we’re with the leaders who are linking arms with counterparts across the aisle who believe that by working together we can realize our aspirations for preserving the opening to Cuba.

They’re extremely bipartisan.

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Ab-normalization: Florida Imposes Sanctions on Itself

February 3, 2017

When Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus folded its tent last month, 400 Floridians lost their jobs. Now, Florida’s Governor Rick Scott appears determined to turn his state’s drive for jobs into a Cuba policy clown show.

Gov. Scott, on the eve of a “jobs summit” that he is staging, unleashed a twitter storm and released a state budget to pressure port officials and cut off funds for port projects to stop Florida ports and businesses from trading with Cuba.

At a time when the Governors of nine states, between 2015 and 2017, have brought trade delegations to Cuba for the express purpose of doing deals and creating two-way trade with Cuba, Gov. Scott, uniquely, seems determined to kill jobs – or prevent jobs from being created – in his own state. Simply because those jobs would depend on Florida having commercial relations with Cuba.

Whether he is acting out of “principle” or acting out of self-interest, Gov. Scott is “acting out” and most abnormally for a government official.

Except. Wait a minute. Tweeting? Pushing people around? Breaking trade deals? This seems awfully familiar.

When it comes to Cuba, Florida – to put it kindly – has always been a paradox unable to come to terms with itself. No state in the union has worked harder to impose sanctions on Cuba, and no state has benefited more from trade and travel with the island.

Since 1959, it has been the center of resistance to the existence of the Cuban system. Now, majorities in the diaspora community and across Florida support an open policy. Florida’s airports, slowly then dramatically, have filled with hundreds of thousands of Cubans and Cuban Americans flying back and forth between the U.S. and Cuba. After the passage of a revised trade sanctions law in 2000, the state’s ports saw off the ships sailing to Havana, and then to Mariel, with containers of food and the other limited but legally traded items U.S. businesses could sell to the island.

Until January, as the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council points out, it was the state’s policy under Governor Scott to make normal trade with Cuba a priority for Florida’s seaports. “Due to the proximity of the state to Cuba and the cultural ties, expanded trade opportunities could be dramatic.” Some business leaders believed Sunshine State trade with Cuba could one day create 20,000 local jobs.

Yes, trade with Cuba does build profits for U.S. businesses and create U.S. jobs. Not just for Florida. Since these opportunities are also open to ports up and down the Atlantic coast, and along the southeast states on the Gulf, Florida has competition; to preserve and expand employment, it has to keep up its investments in trade with Cuba.

Enter the ringmaster. While others wait for the Trump Administration to review Cuba policy (Reuters says that’s happening now), Rick Scott leapt into the ring.

As officials at Port Everglades and the Port of Palm Beach prepared to welcome Cuban counterparts from Cuba’s National Port Administration and sign Memoranda of Understanding (MOU) to build cooperation between their ports and Cuba, Gov. Scott made it clear he didn’t want Florida ports to make deals with Cuba.

Scott tweeted in English and Spanish, as the Miami Herald reported, “We cannot condone Raul Castro’s oppressive behavior,” and added that he’d ask “state legislators to cut off funding for any Florida ports that ‘enter into any agreement with [the] Cuban dictatorship.’”  This caused the knees of Port Everglades and Palm Beach to buckle; there, officials agreed to meet the Cuban delegation but not to sign the MOUs. And, as we report below, it had the same effect on the Port of Tampa, with a spokesperson even denying it ever planned to sign an MOU with Cuba to a reporter who filed a story with a copy of the agreement in his hands.

Yes, the Scott saga even comes with an alternative set of facts. As Paul Guzzo wrote, “The truth is, according to an internal document obtained by the Tampa Bay Times, Port Tampa Bay had already drawn up a memorandum, gotten approval from the federal office, circulated the word in maritime circles and garnered congratulations for its efforts.”

Deciding, apparently, to enlarge rather than quell the problem, Scott put language in his budget, as the Miami Herald reported, that says no money can be “allocated to infrastructure projects that result in the expansion of trade with the Cuban dictatorship because of their continued human rights abuses.”

The Bradenton Herald slammed the governor for his “inconsistency” for supporting trade with China, and added that “Scott’s threat puts Florida at a competitive disadvantage to ports along the Gulf Coast, East Coast, Caribbean islands and Central America [which are] signing agreements with Cuba.”

We asked Dr. Michael Bustamante, a scholar at Florida International University, to interpret the Governor’s behavior. “It’s clear Governor Scott is returning to an old playbook, one in which U.S.-Cuba policy – or in this case Florida-Cuba policy – is a function of domestic politics, not national or state interests.”

The day Gov. Scott released his budget and doubled down on his investment in stopping bilateral trade with Cuba, the Miami Herald observed, “the first legal maritime shipment from Cuba to the U.S. in more than 50 years” had made its way to Miami-Dade County, after reaching Port Everglades the week before. It was two containers of “artisanal” Cuban charcoal. And more may be coming to a pizza oven near you, even if Governor Scott succeeds in sanctioning businesses in his own state, in the name of shutting down trade with Cuba.

What a circus.

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