We are not here to lecture

May 26, 2017

This week, as Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona got ready to reintroduce his legislation to legalize travel to Cuba for all Americans, the bill had 54 cosponsors. He then got the word that Senator Dean Heller of Nevada had just agreed to formalize his support, growing the list of cosponsors from 54 to 55.

It’s a beautiful thing; you can see here how Sen. Heller’s name was handwritten onto the front of Sen. Flake’s Freedom to Travel to Cuba legislation just before it became officially known as S. 1287.

One additional cosponsor? What does it really mean? It means the bipartisan Freedom to Travel legislation written by Sen. Flake (R-AZ) and principal cosponsor Patrick Leahy (D-VT) needs only five more votes to make the bill unstoppable in the U.S. Senate. It means the momentum behind normalizing relations has grown substantially. Most of all, Senator Heller’s decision to sign up as an original cosponsor is a reminder that it’s never too late to stand up for what’s right.

Now is the time.

As President Trump wraps up his trip to the Middle East and Europe, we’re told he will focus next on the results of his administration’s long-anticipated review of Cuba policy, making this an especially important moment to take a strong stand for normalization before he makes up his mind.

The President, it must be said, constructed the ideal framework for U.S.-Cuba relations during his speech at the Arab Islamic American Summit in Saudi Arabia, although he almost certainly did not have Cuba at the front of his mind.

“America,” he said, “is a sovereign nation and our first priority is always the safety and security of our citizens. We are not here to lecture – we are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship. Instead, we are here to offer partnership – based on shared interests and values – to pursue a better future for us all.”

Since the President started with security, it is right to remind him that reforming the rules on travel to Cuba will advance our national security. Laws enacted in 1996 and 2000, as Senator Flake said this week, which impose “restrictions that do not exist for travel by Americans to any other country in the world,” require layers of security, policing, and threats of prosecution that are serious and costly distractions from the real threats the U.S. faces.

As 46 prominent Cuba travel providers wrote the President this week, actions taken by the Obama administration for family and people-to-people travel “has allowed U.S. officials to spend more time focusing on real national security threats, such as organized crime and terrorism, and not waste resources on investigating Americans who simply wish to exercise their right to visit our island neighbor.”

If the President meant it in Saudi Arabia when he said, “We are not here to lecture,” that is a principle that certainly should apply to the U.S. government’s relationship to its own people. That is why the White House needs to hear Senator Leahy’s statement about the 55 cosponsors of the travel bill: “A bipartisan majority of the Senate agrees that the federal government should not be telling Americans where they can or cannot travel, especially to a tiny country just 90 miles from Florida.”

Since the President tied the pursuit of shared interests to values, it is right to remind him, as Senator Flake says, that “Recognizing the inherent right of Americans to travel to Cuba isn’t a concession to dictators, it is an expression of freedom. It is Americans who are penalized by our travel ban, not the Cuban government.”

Travel is a perfect expression of President Trump’s idea of “partnership – based on shared interests and values – to pursue a better future for us all.”

After President Obama restored diplomatic relations with Cuba and began systematically lifting travel restrictions applied by the U.S. government on American travelers, visits to Cuba “exploded,” as Market Watch put it Friday.

Last year alone, as Reuters reported Thursday, “the number of U.S. visitors rose 74 percent…boosting business for Cuban hotels, BnBs, restaurants and taxis but also U.S. cruise operators and airlines that entered the market over the past year.”

This burst of business strengthened the fortunes of the U.S. travel and tourism industry, making their businesses more profitable and better able to generate more jobs. Travel reforms have also strengthened the bonds of families on the island with their kin in the United States. Increased travel from our country has put more money into the pockets of Cuba’s growing small-business sector and its tourist-facing businesses. It has also put U.S. visitors in greater contact with the Cubans whose diverse organizations and associations across their country are adding to Cuba’s growing pluralism.

Because American tourism is still prohibited by law, many of these benefits have been accrued by American visits within narrow categories of permissible travel, and made possible by warmer, respectful relations with Cuba’s government.

This is the choice framed by the administration’s policy review, and it is the message we want the President to hear. His administration can revert to the policies that poisoned our relations with Cuba, lecturing the Cuban people on how to live, what to do, and who to be. Or we can offer Cuba’s government a real partnership, as the President said at the Summit, “based on shared interests and values – to pursue a better future for us all.”

If the President can be encouraged to channel the man who spoke in Saudi Arabia as he makes the decision on Cuba in Washington, we’ve got a deal.

Has your senator signed on to the Freedom for Americans to Travel to Cuba Act? Make your voice heard!

Click here to support CDA’s work bringing you the Cuba Central News Brief each week and promoting a U.S. policy toward Cuba based on engagement and recognition of Cuba’s sovereignty.

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You Can Never Go Back: Update on the Cuba Policy Review

May 19, 2017

It is altogether fitting that Little Havana, the community in Miami which has long been a stronghold of support for the embargo against Cuba, is getting its own museum.

The community has no doubt catalogued, and oftentimes shaped, U.S. policy toward Cuba in all its complexities. Perhaps the museum’s first exhibit will be designed in the months to come as President Trump announces the results of the ongoing Cuba policy review.

What we’re reading

As we mark time waiting for the administration’s Cuba policy review to end, this is what we learned this week.

As USA Today and the Miami Herald both reported, the administration had planned to announce changes on May 20, the 115th anniversary of the founding of the Cuban Republic, but the policy review wasn’t finished and, besides, the President would be overseas.

We are now hearing that day will come and go without a word from the White House on Cuba policy.

What we’re remembering

Although the May 20 event has been set aside, it’s worth reflecting on that for a moment. Proponents of harsh sanctions on Cuba have long observed May 20th for its symbolism as a “day of independence” for the Cuban Republic that preceded the Castro revolution. But history is more complicated than that.

In 1898, the U.S. intervened on Cuba’s side in its war for independence from Spain. Upon the defeat of Spain, the U.S. claimed Cuba as a conquered territory, thus preventing “the transfer of Cuba to Cubans,” as historian Louis A. Pérez puts it. Spain’s loss represented a half-step toward sovereignty for Cuba.

The U.S. intervention also represented a setback for race relations on both sides of the Florida Strait. For 30 years, according to a Newsweek history of the period, a “truly integrated” Cuban army with black and white officers leading its ranks had fought the war against Spain on the island’s soil.

U.S. forces fighting in Cuba were integrated as well, but our black fighters hardly received the recognition or credit they deserved. In one battle, according to the account in Race and Empire, “If it had not been for the Negro Cavalry the Rough Riders [with whom Teddy Roosevelt rode] would have been exterminated.” For too many years, their gallantry could have been a state secret.

Once the war ended, U.S. occupying forces, under the command of Major General Leonard Wood, made certain to purge black officers and leaders from Cuba’s army, whom they called “uneducated and uncultured” and worse.

As Cuba moved toward its new status as a Republic, the United States imposed the Platt Amendment on the Cuban Constitution, granting “the U.S. the right to intervene in the island whenever they pleased, to control all Cuban international treaties, and to possess naval stations on Cuban territory,” as one Cuban intellectual told us.

Thus, after May 20th, 1902, and the start of the Cuban Republic, the country was still subject to the neocolonial authority of the U.S., and the U.S. intervention may have resulted in a step-back for racial equality in Cuba as well. Why anyone would want to choose this date to announce Cuba policy reforms deserves further reflection.

What we’re hearing

The specifics of what President Trump will announce are still subject to conjecture. But the consequences of rolling the policy back to its pre-December 17th state are pretty clear.

Repealing President Obama’s Presidential Policy Directive would take back the recognition of Cuba’s sovereignty as the fundamental basis of U.S.-Cuba policy. It would also discard key U.S. commitments to prosperity for the Cuban people and the expansion of U.S. commerce with the island, and would threaten to end law enforcement information sharing, which senior retired military leaders agree protects U.S. security against terrorism.

A rollback of U.S. engagement with Cuba would create a void into which nations like Russia – which is now selling Cuba subsidized oil, building infrastructure projects on the island, working to modernize the Cuban military, and even restoring the Cuban Capitol’s dome – will surely fill.

Ending post-December 17th reforms could cut the legs out from U.S. airlines, hoteliers, cruise ships, telecom firms, and other industry sectors that have made financial commitments to doing business in Cuba that would not have been possible in the prior half-century.

While some people-to-people travel categories may ultimately remain in place, taking back any of the people-to-people travel reforms would cut deeply into Americans’ travel rights and the profits enjoyed by the new private-sector Cuban businesses – the restaurants, the beds-and-breakfasts, the tour guides, and other small firms – businesses that create jobs and put money into the pockets of Cubans willing to work for an employer other than the state.

And, any diminution of economic activity in Cuba caused by cutbacks in U.S. travel and trade policies could adversely affect Afro-Cubans, who have the least access to remittances from family members living abroad, and whose living circumstances are often the most fragile.

Even more sadly, the administration and policy hardliners are likely to cast any reversal of current policy as being in the service of human rights. “The president has committed to addressing U.S. policy towards Cuba in a way that supports our national security, democracy and human rights,” as Senator Rubio was quoted by USA Today. Yet it was only as a result of the December 17th diplomatic breakthrough that diplomats from Cuba and the U.S. have been able to embark on a process for addressing our differences on this and many other important issues. Going backward gets us nothing.

What we believe

The existing policy of engagement is good for the U.S. national interest, good for the interests of the Cuban people, and a solid foundation for respectful and cooperative relations between the U.S. and Cuban governments. The new policy has done everything from slowing illegal seaborne migration down to near zero to reconnecting Cuban families by phone, email and snail mail, to providing all Cubans the relief that could only come from reduced tensions with their government’s nearest adversary. We think this policy should be expanded, not diminished, and we believe any cutbacks will represent, at best, a missed opportunity for continuing the normalization process; at worst, the needless rehashing of a historical wrong.

The pity of it is grounded in politics. As USA Today writes, “Cuba experts don’t expect Trump to make the kind of wholesale changes to Cuba policy that he hinted at during his presidential campaign.” The paper quotes Frank Mora, director of the Kimberly Green Latin American and Caribbean Center at Florida International University in Miami, who “said Trump has never been adamant about shutting down Obama’s Cuba opening, but feels he must do something to satisfy Cuban-American voters, and members of Congress, who supported him in Florida.”

Going further, it cites Frank Calzon, executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba, who “opposed Obama’s decision to open up relations with the island.”

But even he “doesn’t expect — or want — Trump to change some of the core aspects of the opening.” Why? Because, Calzon said, “You can never go back.”

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Perhaps a Patient and a Pope Will Persuade the President

May 12, 2017

We will forever remember “D-17” as a day of magic.

D-17 is code for December 17th, 2014. On that day, Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro made choreographed statements to their astonished publics who had no idea they’d been negotiating with each other. An American, Alan Gross; Cuba’s “Three Heroes”; a long-imprisoned U.S. intelligence agent; and scores of Cuban political prisoners all walked free. Cubans and Americans stood in awe and cheered both presidents’ commitment to diplomatic recognition and mutual respect.

On December 17th, 2014, the first day of Hanukkah, the Feast of Saint Lazarus, the Afro-Cuban celebration of San Lázaro, and the birthday of Pope Francis converged mystically.

That spirit is still animating millions on both sides of the Florida Strait who are working in so many ways to make this rekindled relationship work. There is much more to do – because there are old grievances and unbridged differences in both countries – but now there is a channel, a means, for resolving these differences, and, most important, a level of mutual respect and confidence that never existed under the old policy.

Today, devoted public servants from all the key U.S. agencies are doing their jobs, despite the unusual public distractions, to finalize the Trump administration’s Cuba policy review.

They are involved in a discussion over whether U.S. interests and the interests of the Cuban people are best realized by a policy of engagement or estrangement.

We believe that engagement has won on the merits. The challenge is how to reconcile a policy that is working with a broad campaign promise and highly focused political pressure to roll it all back.

For starters, our champions in Congress, from both political parties, can tell the story of engagement to the administration because they have seen it with their own eyes while visiting Cuba.

Since December 17th, 2014, engagement has vastly increased contacts, information, and economic activity for growing numbers of Cubans, while freeing U.S. travelers and businesses to explore relationships and commercial opportunities on the island, as never before possible under Cold War-era sanctions and isolation.

Second, we can tell the stories of Americans for whom having a strong relationship with Cuba is literally a matter of life and death. Watch this video about a lung cancer patient named Mick Phillips. This 69-year-old Trump supporter, who owns an industrial pump factory near Green Bay, Wisconsin, is a stage 4 lung cancer patient who has been cancer-free for six years because he’s had access to a lung cancer treatment developed in Cuba, CimaVax, “that’s kept him alive longer than any doctor predicted.”

Mr. Phillips told PBS in a story broadcast this week, if Mr. Trump follows through on his promise to roll back reforms in U.S.-Cuba relations, “I am concerned that access to this medication will go away for many, many people.” Lung-cancer patients like Mr. Phillips (as well as Americans with severe symptoms of diabetes) need to have their stories shared and heard within the halls of power on the Potomac as the future of engagement is decided by the White House in the days and weeks to come.

Now, policymakers like Senator Marco Rubio don’t want these stories to be heard. This week, he told senior leaders from the U.S. intelligence community: “I continue to be concerned about the potential, and what I believe is the reality, of a concerted effort on the part of the Cuban government to recruit and unwittingly enlist Americans — business executives and others, even local and state political leaders (in) an effort to have them influence of U.S. policy making on Cuba. And particularly the lifting of the embargo.”

In other words, Americans who visit Cuba and return home wanting to intensify the process of normalizing relations should be discounted as dupes. As we report below, more than 285,000 U.S. travelers visited Cuba in 2016. That is a lot of dupes!

If we cannot rely on the free expression of Americans who can provide first-hand experience of what open relations means to them to sway the decision-making process, Professor William LeoGrande says we could find hope through Pope Francis I.

It has been well-documented just how meaningful it was that the Vatican supported, and pushed along at critical moments, the diplomacy that made D-17 possible.

As LeoGrande writes: “For Pope Francis, the first Latin American pope, the Vatican’s instrumental role in brokering the normalization of U.S.-Cuban relations was a diplomatic milestone and a vindication of his commitment to a ‘culture of encounter.’”

President Trump is going to the Vatican on May 24th. We know that differences over “the wall” have kept the Pontiff and the President from seeing eye-to-eye. But, “the belief that adversaries can resolve their differences through dialogue and mutual understanding,” LeoGrande says, “has been the cornerstone of the Vatican’s foreign policy under Francis.”

If Mick Phillips’ story doesn’t reach the President, perhaps he’ll succumb to the influence of a higher authority.

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On Russia and a Retirement

May 5, 2017

In this space last week, we paid special attention to the letter written to the White House by 16 retired and highly respected U.S. military officers. If the new administration fails to uphold our existing policy of engaging politically and economically with Cuba, they wrote, “it is certain that China, Russia, and other entities whose interests are contrary to the United States’ will rush into the vacuum.”

We also detected a note of frustration in the voice of Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-27) about the yet-unrevealed conclusion of the administration’s Cuba policy review. “If President Trump goes back on his word and doesn’t roll back on these concessions,” she said, referring to President Obama’s reforms, “I think a lot of our folks in our community will be quite displeased.”

On Sunday, Rep. Ros-Lehtinen made public her decision to retire from Congress rather than run for another term in office. On Wednesday, we learned that Russia had sent a shipment of 249,000 barrels of refined oil products to energy-short Cuba and had signed a long-term supply agreement with Cuba’s government.

These are not unrelated events. The convergence of Russia’s oil shipment and Rep. Ros-Lehtinen’s announcement is simply the latest, vivid reminder that the old, beaten path of trying to isolate and sanction Cuba into submission is exhausted and long past its retirement age.

Since the end of the Cold War, the United States kept an unyielding grip on a policy that reliably undermines U.S. interests. After the Soviet Union pulled out of Cuba, and Mikhail Gorbachev pulled down the banner of the U.S.S.R., nearly a quarter-century elapsed before the U.S. Secretary of State and Cuba’s Foreign Minister could stand side by side and watch their nations’ flags whip in the wind together.

While the U.S. and Cuba have real differences, what prevented us from restoring diplomatic relations before, and hampers our ability to build confidence and enjoy the fruits of a more normal relationship now, is our domestic politics. As Vox wrote in 2014, “those domestic politics are driven by the extremely strong preferences of a politically active Cuban-American exile community concentrated in the electorally crucial swing state of Florida.”

Rep. Ros-Lehtinen is an authentic and durable figure, and not just derivative of her South Florida political milieu. As Marc Caputo wrote in Politico, she was “the first Hispanic woman and first Cuban American ever elected to Congress and, before that, the Florida state legislature.” Political opponents called her a “role model for millions of Latinos looking to break barriers in electoral politics.”

Although her conservative foreign policy views, as U.S. News and World Report observed, also encompassed support for programs like PEPFAR, which effectively fights HIV/AIDS in Africa, her commitment to the ossified policy of trying to overthrow the Cuban regime, seemingly by any means necessary, was unwavering (she opposed U.S. negotiations to gain the release of Alan Gross, for example).

As with her like-minded allies, who tirelessly advocate for tougher sanctions on Cuba and oppose travel to Cuba by others but have never visited the island to see it for themselves, she used her politically secure seat to gain and accrue greater power to keep a failed policy in place. Despite its immense costs, Cuba policy hardliners succeeded in doing this until President Obama made the decisive change in U.S. policy on December 17, 2014.

So Rep. Ros-Lehtinen’s decision to leave Congress – and separately, the threat of legal jeopardy menacing Senator Robert Menéndez of New Jersey – is significant because of the intersection between politics and policy.

From 1980 to 2000, Republican candidates for president won, on average, 78.67 percent of the Hispanic vote in her Miami-Dade County. As the Miami Herald recently reported, in Miami-Dade County, where one out of three residents is Cuban-American, Secretary Clinton ran ahead of then-candidate Trump by 30 points, 64 percent to 34 percent.

In the House, Rep. Ros-Lehtinen represents one of only two majority Cuban-American congressional districts in the nation. But the demographics of her district have changed. The earliest arrivals from Cuba are aging out. Party registration has shifted. Members of the community have moved, inter-married, visited relations in Cuba, and have horizons – and demands for jobs, education, health care, and more – that extend beyond Cuba as a policy issue.

While these trends are actively reshaping the 10-16 metropolitan areas in Florida and elsewhere in the U.S. that have measurable Cuban-American populations, even the New York-New Jersey region is dwarfed in size by the adjoining districts represented by Rep. Ros-Lehtinen and Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart. While Rep. Ros-Lehtinen may be ending her four-decade career in politics for utterly human and apolitical reasons, her decision to give up a Congressional seat in Miami-Dade County matters: The changes in her district are broadly indicative of a power shift that will mute the ability of pro-sanctions Cuban Americans to block engagement with Cuba over the long term.

This shift has already given greater voice to the “large pro-engagement coalition that includes lawmakers from both parties, businesses and young Cuban-Americans, (which) is calling on the White House to build on the foundation of engagement it inherited,” as the New York Times said in its powerful editorial this week.

We still don’t know what President Trump has in mind for the future of U.S.-Cuba relations as his review of the policy winds down. We already know, as the retired flag officers wrote prophetically last month, that his policy choices will determine whether we create or fill the void that exists between our two countries. If he doesn’t believe the officers, he can always ask Russia.

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“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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