Is it a Plane? Is it a Paddleboard? Or is it Grounded?

August 2, 2013

Today, we consider Cuba policy from the sky, sea, dry land, and through the eyes of a friend.

In the sky:  Congress fled Washington this week without getting much done on the federal budget.  So, this was a well-timed moment for John Hudson, national security correspondent for The Cable, to start his essay “Anti-Cuba effort deserves to die,” with the following:

“It’s difficult to find a more wasteful government program. For the last six years, the U.S. government has spent more than $24 million to fly a plane around Cuba and beam American-sponsored TV programming to the island’s inhabitants. But every day the plane flies, the government in Havana jams its broadcast signal. Few, if any, Cubans can see what it broadcasts.”

Hudson notes that U.S. taxpayers have shelled out over a half-billion dollars to fund programming by Radio and TV Martí since 1985. The Martís were launched as part of the U.S. government’s on-going efforts to overthrow the Cuban government or, as the State Department’s Inspector-General wrote in 2007, to “Undermine the regime’s ‘succession strategy’.”

Unsurprisingly, the Cuban government jammed the signal from the get-go.  But, this didn’t daunt our policymakers.  After failing to overcome Cuba’s disruption of the signal by floating a blimp over the island, they moved to transmitting signals from airborne platforms flying under the banner of AeroMartí.  Since 2006, the government has owned up to spending at least $5.9 million annually to get the Martí’s broadcast content, still jammed by Cuba, to its intended audience.  So far, no such luck.

Ironically, Aero Martí is stuck at its base in Georgia due to the budget cuts – known in Washington speak as “sequestration” – which the gridlocked Congress couldn’t undo before it left on vacation.  You can see a picture of the plane here.  As we report in the blast below, even the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the Martís overseers, want to kill the program.  But, Hudson says Sen. Robert Menendez (NJ) and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, (FL-27) are forcing the boondoggle to continue.

Before leaving town, Rep. Ros-Lehtinen issued a statement announcing her support for unrelated legislation, The Taxpayer Bill of Rights, but said nothing about taxpayers’ rights or saving money by grounding permanently AeroMartí.

On the sea: By the time you read this, we’ll know the fate of Benjamin Schiller Friberg.  Thursday evening, the thirty-five year-old surfer jumped into the water in the Martína Hemingway with a paddleboard aiming to cross the Florida Strait from Cuba to Key West.

Before departing Cuba, he explained why he was taking his risky voyage, “this trip is to promote peace, love and friendship between the peoples of Cuba and of United States, as well as a healthy lifestyle.”

We can only imagine how disdainful the embargo supporters must be – the ones who hold AeroMartí aloft –of a surfer seeking peace and love by traveling across the same waters that Cuban rafters have navigated seeking new lives in the United States.

We hope he reaches his goal safely. Even more, we hope people hear the message he’s sending.  Every day, we read stories (like this one by Jeff Franks of Reuters) about how people-to-people travelers jump through hoops, and carefully observe excessive government regulations, just to visit Cuba. They must do so because our government’s policy is based on the misguided premise of objecting to restrictions placed on Cubans by limiting the freedom of our fellow citizens to visit them.

Every surfboard, every trip like the one taken by Beyonce and Jay-Z, every effort by U.S. scientists to overcome obstacles to work with Cuban counterparts on projects that reflect U.S. interests – these are all reminders that there is much to be gained by promoting cooperation between like-minded Cubans and U.S. visitors, and our government shouldn’t be standing in the way of engagement between them.

On land: At least, President Obama has both feet on the ground when it comes to encouraging contact. Yes, he enforces the embargo with astonishing zeal, and keeps signing budgets that fund the Cold War-style regime change programs.  But, he also clearly gets how good policy can help every day Cubans by promoting two-way travel.

After acting in 2009 to allow unlimited family travel by Cuban Americans, and in 2011 to restore people-to-people contacts, this week his administration expanded opportunities for Cubans to visit our country.  As the Miami Herald explained, the president used his executive authority to “make non-immigrant visas valid for five years instead of the current six months, and good for multiple entries.

“Now, eligible Cubans will be able to visit South Florida — or anywhere in the United States — for the holidays, return for a family wedding or come to tend to a sick relative without applying in person for a new visa each time.”

As the State Department explained it, “this is part of our broader policy to increase people-to-people ties between Americans and Cubans, to increase communications with the Cuban people, to promote openness.”

This approach is far better than the loopy policy of transmitting signals from planes flying figure eights over the island, and offers a more permanent solution than piloting a surfboard across the Florida Strait, so we hope the president keeps at it.

Our Friend: We’re unabashed admirers of Saul Landau.  He’s been in the thick of the reporting and analysis on Cuba and Latin America, often exposing the tragic realities of U.S. policy toward the region, for decades.  In the course of a passionate and productive life, his candid explorations of our nation’s history have educated generations and earned him the respect of journalists and the human rights community.  He’s not feeling so well these days, and we hope today’s blast – like the others before it – gave him as much joy as his work has made us think.  And we’re thinking of him, right now.

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And Justice for Some

September 14, 2012

We open this week with a story about justice, one that will have special resonance for those who remember victims of atrocity and terror in the 1970s and the 1980s, and for others whose accounts have not yet been settled.

On September 11, a retired Salvadoran military officer with the curious name Inocente Orlando Montano admitted to the crime of lying to U.S. immigration officials.  But Inocente’s guilt involves far greater offenses than living illegally in the Boston area for the last decade.

Colonel Montano is connected to numerous killings, but in particular to one of the most infamous human rights crimes of the many committed during El Salvador’s civil war:  the 1989 massacre of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter. A United Nations Truth Commission investigation of the massacre placed Montano “in all the meetings in which the assassination was discussed, planned, and ordered,” news accounts said. He also was a key player in covering up the role of the military’s high command in the crime.

In May 2011, a Spanish judge indicted twenty suspects in the Jesuit murders, Montano among them.  He is now, finally, at risk of extradition to Spain to face legal accountability for his actions, along with 19 other suspects.  The Center for Justice and Accountability, which filed the case in Spain, tracked Montano down in Everett, MA; Immigration and Customs Enforcement authorities determined that he had lied repeatedly about his past on legal forms to qualify for a temporary protected immigration status offered to those who cannot safely return to their own countries. This protection status was supposed to be for victims, not victimizers.  That he is a few steps closer to justice and a few steps further away from his anonymous unaccountable life is a miracle worth savoring.

And yet, 1500 miles away in Miami a terrorist named Luis Posada Carriles, who also lied his way into this country, continues to walk free.  Posada is identified in declassified FBI and CIA reports as the mastermind of the October 1976 midair bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed all 73 people aboard.  He has openly admitted orchestrating seven bombings of tourist hotels in Havana in 1997 and 1998, killing a 32-year old Italian businessman and wounding 11 others. In November 2000, he was arrested, then convicted and served prison time in Panama for a plot to blow up Fidel Castro and many other people in an auditorium.  After all of this, he made his way into the U.S., entering illegally, and then lied to authorities under oath about how he got here, and about his past involvement in terrorism.  Although the Justice Department prosecuted him for immigration fraud, he was acquitted at a trial in El Paso, Texas, last year.

When he was incarcerated before his trial, ICE officials formally labeled him “a danger to both the community and national security of the United States.” Yet today, that “danger” is free to strolls the streets of Florida. Although the Obama administration has a number of recourses to hold him accountable for his violent past, including extraditing him to Venezuela or designating him a terrorist under the provisions of the Patriot Act and detaining him indefinitely, there are no signs of judicial activity in his case. It is, after all, an election year in which Florida is a significant swing state.

Justice, as well as the credibility of this administration’s commitment to fighting terrorism, requires that action be taken to hold Posada accountable for his many violent crimes. As the case of Col. Montano demonstrates, where there is a will, there is a way. We will have to wait until after November 7th to find out if justice for some will move toward justice for all.

Note: More information on the case of Luis Posada Carriles can be found in this article by Peter Kornbluh published by the Nation and at the website of the National Security Archive.

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What the FARC is going on in Cuba?

August 31, 2012

What the FARC is going on in Cuba?  And what does it mean for President Obama and the crowd of hardliners in Congress we call the Cold War warriors?

We figured something was up last Sunday, when former Colombian president Alvaro Uribe accused current president Juan Manuel Santos of holding secret peace talks with FARC rebels in Cuba, according to Colombia Reports. “This is incomprehensible,” said Uribe during a speech in the northern Colombian city of Sincelejo, “security deteriorating while the government is negotiating with the FARC terrorist group in Cuba.”

President Santos, who had initially dismissed the allegations as “pure rumors,” confirmed on Monday that the Colombian government has not only been negotiating with the FARC in Havana but that the two parties had agreed to restart formal peace talks, which had collapsed in 2002.

According to foreign sources, here and here, the deal was broken on Cuban soil with help from Venezuelan, Cuban, and Norwegian officials, and the talks are scheduled to commence in Oslo on October 5th. Santos also extended an invitation to the National Liberation Army (ELN) to participate.

Reuters reported that “U.S. President Barack Obama is aware of the process and is in agreement.”

We can’t know now what this breakthrough means for Colombia, although we surely hope it leads to peace.  What we do know is this: Cuba’s contribution to the Colombia deal undercuts a key rationale for U.S. sanctions against the island – with implications both for the anti-Cuba hardliners in Congress and the president himself. The irony is that it was Uribe, a staunch Cold warrior, who helped bring the talks to public attention.

Cuba has long been accused by the U.S. of harboring FARC members. These allegations are one of the State Department’s main justifications for designating Cuba a State Sponsor of Terrorism. The fact that Cuba has been providing neutral ground for a peace agreement between the two parties, however, creates serious problems for the State Department’s rationale for listing Cuba as a state sponsor of terror.

It’s also a blow to the Cold War warriors who use Cuba’s presence on the list to fuel their rhetoric and to oppose any relaxation of U.S. policy. When the Republican Party adopted its foreign policy platform in Tampa, it called Cuba’s government “a mummified relic of the age of totalitarianism (and) a state-sponsor of terrorism.”

The Colombia breakthrough also has implications for President Obama.

When his administration argues in public that having the FARC in Havana is a cause of keeping Cuba on the terror list, even as Mr. Obama approves in private a peace process brokered in Cuba to have the FARC and Colombia sit together to make peace, it damages our nation’s credibility – not just in Latin America but everywhere the U.S. encounters resistance to our policies against terrorism.  It’s a contradiction crying out to be addressed.

And it’s also a terrible position for the winner of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize who was, after all, honored by the Norwegian Nobel Committee “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.”

Early in his administration, President Obama should have taken Cuba off the list as he has been advised so often.  He should not have relisted Cuba every year since.

As naïve as it may be to suggest he act in this election year to remove them, he should consider this:  If the Colombian government has the courage to sit across the table to negotiate peace with the insurgency in its civil war, his administration should at least have the nerve to tell the Cold War warriors in Congress that the facts have changed and he’s removing Cuba from the terror list.

We’re reasonably certain that the hardliners are the only ones who will really care, and their offense will be drowned out by the applause of those who will appreciate a show of guts and the recognition of reality.

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