“100 Days of Disquietude”: Will Trump Meet Milestone Without Messing With Cuba?

April 28, 2017

We start with a “hat-tip” to the editors of Project Syndicate, for invoking Gabriel García Márquez in an edition marking the Trump administration’s first hundred days.

Admittedly, it’s Day 99 and we don’t want to jinx our chances. But since we anticipated that the new administration would keep its promise to cancel the Cuba policy reforms of the last administration within the first 100 days, we’re relieved. And at least one South Florida hardliner, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-27), sounds disappointed.

According to Channel 10 News in Miami, Rep. Ros-Lehtinen was concerned that a letter written by 16 retired military officers would lead the President to renege on his word to her South Florida constituents.

Their letter, reflecting U.S. history and military strategy, advised the Trump administration to continue normalizing relations with Cuba in travel, counterterrorism, border control, environmental protections, and trade to advance the security interests of the United States.

“We acknowledge the current regime must do more to open its political system and dialogue with the Cuban people. But, if we fail to engage economically and politically, it is certain that China, Russia, and other entities whose interests are contrary to the United States’ will rush into the vacuum.” With engagement, they wrote, “We have an opportunity now to shape and fill a strategic void.”

“If President Trump goes back on his word and doesn’t roll back on these concessions,” Rep. Ros-Lehtinen said, “I think a lot of our folks in our community will be quite displeased.”

The U.S. obsession with Cuba, originating in the early 19th century, is a narrative woven with threads as varied as race and rum. But they are all bound together with one fact as permanent as Cuba’s geography: its strategic location.

As this Geopolitical Futures tract observes: “Cuba lies between southern Florida and the Yucatán Peninsula, creating the Straits of Florida and the Yucatán Channel … Those 90 miles continue to be one of the most important sea lanes for the United States. The presence of Soviet submarines in Cuba threatened both straits. There are those who ask why the United States was so frightened of a small country. It wasn’t. The U.S. government was not concerned about the Cuban government. It was concerned about the use of Cuba by the Soviets.”

In breaking from the Cold War policy he inherited, President Obama sought to end Cuba’s isolation and fill the void with diplomacy, bilateral agreements, trade, and wider opportunities for contact between Cubans and U.S. visitors to the island.

By many reasonable measures, things are going well. For example, the decision to end the permissive migration policy, which induced Cubans to risk treacherous journeys to gain residency by simply setting foot on land, has caused illegal migration to plummet.

Cuban and U.S. authorities now have wider latitude to cooperate on environmental problems, drug interdiction, scientific research, and more. As the Associated Press reported earlier this week, reduced restrictions on U.S. travel enabled close to 300,000 American visitors to journey to Cuba in 2016, a jump of 76 percent over 2015. Their trips put money in the pockets of Cubans running small businesses, and contribute to the people-to-people interactions that are good for individuals, families, and businesses of both countries.

In sum, the new policies contribute to stability and closer relations, while also allowing the new administration to continue making progress with Cuba on the issues which divide us while continuing to collaborate on our vital mutual interests.

The retired flag officers made the right case for keeping the policy, especially if what Ana Palacio, the former foreign minister of Spain, said to Project Syndicate, is right – that the stars of National Security Advisor Lt. General H.R. McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson are rising, and the “adults are back in charge.”

We’ll see. After all, the administration’s Cuba policy review continues in secret. Their new budget for the State Department, while cutting aid for development, appears to beef up by 900 percent at least one account from which “regime change” money has historically been drawn. The administration doesn’t end with its first hundred days, and the President can still keep the promises he made during the campaign, as reported by Channel 10, that “he’d be tough on Cuba and would roll back President Obama’s policy toward the island, even if it meant closing the newly opened U.S. Embassy.”

The question aptly raised by the retired military leaders – what do you want “filling the void”? – frames the choice before policymakers today.

Do you want refugees, oil pollution, and the navies of hostile powers roiling the waters between the United States and Cuba, or do you want two-way travel, grain shipments, and bilateral cooperation bringing stability and safety to our respective shores?

Let’s hope the adults are in the room.

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Mr. President, can we have 10 minutes of your time?

April 21, 2017

Engagement, listening, and freely exchanging views can change minds. Just ask President Trump.

When he met last week with President Xi Jinping of China, President Trump said China “could easily take care of the North Korea threat,” the Wall Street Journal reported. “But then Mr. Xi explained the history of China and Korea, Mr. Trump said. ‘After listening for 10 minutes, I realized it’s not so easy.’”

From this remove, we can’t know whether the President has ears to hear the strong arguments for keeping and growing the diplomatic and economic opening he inherited from the Obama administration.

But if he did listen, we think he could see the link between what he promised on the campaign – that he could get a “better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the U.S. as a whole” – and the existing policy, which is already delivering the goods for the United States and the Cuban people.

So, taking a page from President Xi’s playbook, we’re asking President Trump to take at least 10 minutes to consider the strongest arguments we and other advocates are making for pursuing the policy of engagement with Cuba now.

You can read the letter to the National Security Council sent by the Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA) about President Trump’s Cuba policy review here.

Governor Phil Bryant of Mississippi had a message for President Trump when he returned from his visit to Cuba this week. He urged him to see past the narrative of Cuba from the 1960s to “get that dialogue going in a very positive manner.”

When Gov. Bryant speaks – a Republican, rated the fifth most conservative governor in the U.S., who stuck by his endorsement of President Trump last fall – it’s reasonable to think he’ll be heard.

This week President Trump also heard from a renowned group of retired U.S. military flag officers. In a letter to the White House, they said, “The continued normalization of relations with Cuba is important to the national security of the United States and to the stability of relationships in the Western Hemisphere.” They also argued that keeping the reforms that allow greater travel and trade, “will empower the Cuban people to better determine their own futures.”

President Trump, who is famously deferential to his military advisers, should carefully consider what these highly decorated military leaders said about how we can best protect U.S. security and realize our humanitarian goals for the Cuban people.

How about negotiating strategy? Professor Bill LeoGrande and Marguerite Rose Jiménez, writing in The American Conservative, offer clear, smart, and honest advice informed by history: “The idea that the best way to support a political opening in Cuba is for the United States to demand human-rights concessions as a condition of engagement is not just a bad negotiating strategy. It also represents a fundamental misunderstanding of how the United States can most effectively influence Cuba’s political future.”

“Rather than make demands Cuba is sure to reject,” they argue for a policy that “aims to create conditions that provide Cuban leaders with self-interested reasons to allow greater political and economic freedom.” In addition to citing evidence that current policy is realizing important goals – from growing availability of Wi-Fi hotspots to the greater latitude for U.S. diplomats to meet Cubans from across the political spectrum – they echo an argument made by the generals: “Building bilateral economic ties creates the incentive for Cuba to maintain an open flow of people and ideas, and to be more responsive to U.S. concerns on a whole range of issues, including human rights.”

The promise that favorable conditions created by engagement with Cuba could produce better results than the previous policy of estrangement is being fulfilled every day. Our good friends at Cuba Educational Travel released this survey which shows how “U.S. travelers are engaging directly with Cuban citizens, speaking to them about economics, internet, technology and other key issues at a critical moment of transition on the island” thanks to the recent reforms.

It was no accident that Dr. Maria Grazia Giammarinaro, UN special rapporteur on trafficking in persons, was able to spend five days in Cuba discussing human rights and human trafficking with Cuba’s government. It was the result of bilateral diplomacy with Cuba, affirmations by the U.S. of respect for Cuba’s sovereignty, and decisions taken by Cuba’s leadership that contributed to the climate that made her trip possible and effective.

In this space we have expressed pessimism about the Trump administration’s Cuba policy review and whether his appointments and previous statements signal a preordained result. At the same time, silence is not a strategy. The most consequential decision that the administration can make to advance U.S.-Cuba relations is to understand that a political and economic transition is underway, and to pursue a policy that will support that progress in the years ahead.

If we had 10 minutes, CDA would tell the President about our trips to Cuba, including the most recent visit with Republican Members of Congress, and the conversations we’ve had with Cubans inside and outside the government. “All of them,” as we said in our letter to the NSC, “expressed their support for a continuation, even an expansion, of U.S. policy so they have the greatest latitude and opportunity to build a future for themselves in Cuba.”

If the President would listen, this is what we’d say. It may not work. We’re not naïve. But if it worked for President Xi, why not us?

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The Bay of Pigs, Presidential Promises, and the Cuba Policy Review

April 14, 2017

One thing that makes Americans cynical about politics is that sources of mainstream opinion get euphoric when political leaders break their promises.

“Scarcely 12 weeks into his presidency,” the Los Angeles Times observes, “(President) Trump has backed off or reversed many of his most provocative campaign promises on foreign policy.”

Simply hearing President Trump say NATO is not obsolete, China is not a currency manipulator, and the Export-Import Bank is a good thing made their knees buckle. A few more weeks like this, as one Washington narrative suggests, and President Trump will have navigated all the way to the center.

We’ll see. As Brian Goldsmith wrote for The Atlantic last year, “Once in office, presidents almost always try to carry out their pre-election agendas. When they’re unable to keep those promises, it’s usually because of congressional opposition [think health care] – not because they’ve discarded campaign rhetoric to pursue other goals.” Scholars have examined the record – from Roosevelt to Reagan – and found “two-thirds of the winning candidate’s policy pledges were at least partially fulfilled after four years.”

That’s what the research says, and that is what President Trump’s chief strategist intends for him to do. As Steve Bannon told the Washington Times, “He’s laid out an agenda with those speeches, with the promises he made, and our job every day is just to execute on that … And he’s maniacally focused on that.”

Where does that leave Cuba? This question seems especially apt as we approach April 17th, the anniversary of the Bay of Pigs invasion.

It was on April 17th, 1961, that “the Cuban-exile invasion force, known as Brigade 2506, landed at beaches along the Bay of Pigs and immediately came under heavy fire,” the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library explains. “Cuban planes strafed the invaders, sank two escort ships, and destroyed half of the exiles’ air support.”

From there, the plan fell apart. Over 100 of the attackers were killed, and almost 1,200 members of Brigade 2506 were captured. It took 20 months of direct diplomacy between the U.S. and Cuba’s government for the brigade prisoners to be released from captivity. Then, according to the Kennedy Library’s account, “surviving brigade members gathered for a ceremony in Miami’s Orange Bowl, where the brigade’s flag was handed over to President Kennedy. ‘I can assure you,’ the president promised, ‘that this flag will be returned to this brigade in a free Havana.’”

More than a half-century later, the Brigade 2506 Veterans Association formally endorsed Donald Trump for president, the first endorsement for president ever made by the Brigade. The Brigade veterans were embraced by the campaign and by some hardliners in the Cuban American community; they were vilified by others. But they did so out of the conviction that if Mr. Trump were to be elected president, he would honor his pledge to undo the Obama opening unless the government of Cuba agrees to his demands, as he tweeted it should. History, of course, teaches us the Cubans are not going to obey.

President Kennedy, as we noted previously, did not understand the consequences of going forward with the Bay of Pigs invasion. President Trump’s National Security Advisor, Lt. General H.R. McMaster, wrote a book, “Dereliction of Duty,” about how defense and foreign policy decisions went off the rails; it was thanks, in part, to “President Kennedy’s informal style and structure of decision making (which) did not allow for a systematic review of the planned invasion of Cuba.”

Monday is both the anniversary of the Bay of Pigs and the 88th day of President Trump’s administration. Much of Washington is eyeing the calendar and the clock as we move closer to Day 100 and, perhaps like Steve Bannon, we’re maniacally focused on whether the Cuba campaign promise to Brigade 2506 and others will be honored or become another part of the supposed move to the center.

The Center for Democracy in the Americas has submitted a defense of the existing Cuba policy to the National Security Council staff at the White House, which is coordinating President Trump’s review of Cuba policy. We plan to release what we submitted early next week. It would be a testament to Lt. General McMaster’s belief in good process for the NSC in 2017 to do better by President Trump than President Kennedy did by the process in 1961. So we hope that our views – and those expressed by others – will help to persuade the administration to stay the course.

At some point, either we or the Bay of Pigs brigade will be disappointed. Whatever happens, it will be a reminder – to paraphrase George Orwell – that some campaign promises are more equal than others. That’s especially true when it comes to President Trump and Cuba; after all, he’s made so many.

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Food as a weapon

April 7, 2017

For a century, the United States has provided food to nations out of the belief that hunger and famine undermine stability and threaten our values and our security. After attempts by Presidents Ford and Carter to embargo grain shipments to the Soviet Union backfired, it has been an article of faith that the U.S. would forswear the use of food as a political weapon. Recent efforts to attack a Cabinet nomination in the Senate and, separately, to derail legislation to promote food exports in the House, remind us how this principle is honored in the breach by policymakers who like to stick it to Cuba.

Sales of food to Cuba face fewer restrictions under the U.S. embargo than other products or services, but they are constrained by one significant limitation. In contrast to how we conduct sales of U.S. agricultural products to any other nation, the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000 (TSRA) prohibits any U.S. credit or guarantees for food exports to Cuba. Instead, Cuba must pay on a cash-in-advance basis.

No other country imposes this limitation on its farmers, and TSRA exacts a price. While Cuba has purchased more than $5.3 billion worth of agricultural commodities and food products over the last 15-plus years, according to the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, our farmers could have sold far more. As Kansas Senator Jerry Moran told the U.S. Senate last month, “It costs about $6 to $7 a ton to ship grain from the United States to Cuba. It costs about $20 to $25 to ship that same grain from the European Union.”

U.S.-grown food should be attractive to Cuba, which depends on imports for 60-80 percent of its food requirements, given our advantages of quality, proximity, and price. But Cuba prefers to meet the majority of its food requirements by dealing with suppliers from other countries that can offer Cuba credit financing. As a result, it has cut back on food purchases from the U.S., which reached a high of $710 million in 2008 but fell to $232 million last year.

With this unilateral sanction, we raise the costs of putting food on kitchen tables for Cubans across the island, while giving away market share to our competitors. As Senator Moran said in a recent floor speech, “Keep in mind that when we don’t sell agricultural commodities to Cuba, somebody else does. … When we can’t sell wheat that comes from a Kansas wheat field to Cuba, they’re purchasing that wheat from France, from Canada, from other European countries.”

For years, agriculture-state legislators like Senator Moran and Congressman Rick Crawford of Arkansas have pressed Congress to enact legislation that would allow U.S. farmers to sell into the Cuban market with credit financing. But they have been thwarted time and again by pro-embargo hardliners who castigate those who propose extending credit as offering concessions to “the Castro regime.”

Here are two cases in point.

President Trump nominated former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue to serve as Secretary of Agriculture. Every other Cabinet secretary nomination has been approved by the U.S. Senate, except Sonny Perdue’s, whose vote has been delayed over food sales to Cuba.

During his confirmation hearing before the Senate Agriculture Committee, Perdue told the panel, “We would love to have Cuba as a customer,” but that Congress has to pass legislation to fix the financing issues that depress U.S. sales to the island.

“I think if we can get the private financing done there – and there’s some proposals already to do that – I think American agriculture both in the Upper Plains and in the Gulf Coast and the East Coast have a wonderful opportunity,” Perdue said in response to a question from Sen. Amy Klobuchar (MN). “That’s a country that’s hungry. I led a delegation there in 2010 in Georgia and they wanted our product. They could just not afford it and pay for it there based on the financial crisis that they were in. So, hopefully we can mitigate that.”

Following committee approval of his nomination, however, his path to a vote on the Senate floor was blocked by Senator Robert Menéndez of New Jersey, with the support of Senator Marco Rubio from Florida, because of the statements Perdue made on financing for U.S. exports to Cuba.

It wasn’t until both Senators had private conversations with Perdue, the contents of which have not been disclosed, that they signaled their willingness for his nomination to be voted by the Senate. We’re left to imagine what he promised them; as a reporter for the High Plains/Midwest Ag Journal put it, “whether Perdue has since changed that stance hasn’t been made clear.”

Then there’s the case of Rep. Rick Crawford (AR-1), champion of the Cuba Agricultural Exports Act, the House bill to fix the agriculture finance problem. Nearly a year ago, pressure from the House Republican Leadership stopped Rep. Crawford from getting a vote on the House floor on his proposal, at a time when it was likely to pass. After receiving a promised hearing on the legislation last fall, he was told that pro-embargo South Florida legislators would work with him to move a version forward they could live with. Despite a well-organized effort to gather greater levels of support and co-sponsorship of the legislation, the effort seems sidetracked not just by the anti-Castro ideologues but by the Congress in a stand-still and dwindling days left before the summer recess for an agreement to be brought to the floor.

Consider where all of this leaves us. We have legislation to help Cuba feed its people with food grown in the U.S. lost in negotiation; an Agriculture Secretary nominee whose professed “love” for selling food to Cuba had to be smothered to get a vote on his confirmation; a Secretary of State who pledged that no bill to “weaken” the embargo would get President Trump’s signature until his policy review was done; and Senator Rubio assuring us the President plans to treat Cuba “like the dictatorship it is.”

Together, it’s a recipe for making food more costly and less available for Cubans and blunting the moral dimensions of U.S. foreign policy and leadership.

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