USAID’s Hip Hop Hiccup and the “Smart Power Prom”

December 12, 2014

A new USAID scandal was exposed yesterday by the exceptional investigative team at the Associated Press.

USAID, acting through its notorious contracting partner, Creative Associates International, tried to infiltrate Cuba’s hip-hop community to intensify the political messaging of its artists and use their fans to foment a rapper’s revolution.

The elaborate plan recruited Cuban musicians for initiatives that included trips to Europe for concerts and video workshops that were actually covers for anti-regime training. The Cuban participants did not know that the U.S. government was behind it.

Cloaked in elaborate secrecy using lawyers, front companies, and banks, the project was also concealed from Members of Congress whose job it was to scrutinize it.  Senator Patrick Leahy, the USAID oversight chairman who first learned of it Thursday, called the effort “reckless” and “stupid,” although the program ended in failure two years before. It seems that only the agency, its contractors, and Cuban state security knew what was going on.

There is a detailed item below that explains the story in nearly all of its troubling dimensions, so we’ll try to avoid duplicating it here. Instead, we focus on what comes through so clearly in the coverage and in AP’s accompanying documents, and that is the air of arrogance that permeates this latest example of the regime change program.

The U.S. completely misses the fact that Cuba has its own rap community that has been leading a conversation on the island about tough issues like race and the system’s stewardship of the revolution since the Soviet Union fell. Our government can’t imagine Cubans deciding for themselves what kind of country they want to build without our training them to do so.

As Phil Peters puts it, “This mentality views Cuban civil society as ours to shape.” You can see this myopic thinking at work in reports by the consultants (their writing is cleaned up for readability) who came to Amsterdam and Madrid to train their unwitting Cuban clients to be rappers for revolution. They found Cubans who were thoughtful, cautious, and not yet ready to take decisions that could put themselves or others at risk:

“Adrian is perceiving that their work is creating a change but he is not sure what type of change…It is my perception that he will need some time to think about change he wants to cause in his community and his personal responsibility.”

“They are perceiving themselves as young artists and they would like to stay in that role (without taking the burden of big responsibilities for societal processes) although they would like to see changes in their community.”

“Trainees were very receptive, motivated and enthusiastic… But, my impression is that they are not quite sure what this they would like to do together is? Or even better why they want to do it”

“My impression is that there is a consensus within the group they want to some changes in their society but it seems they never fully discuss what kind of changes they would like to see.”

What is slowing them down? Just take a look:

“In terms of group dynamic they are quite flat and democratic — they are bringing decisions through discussion. I am sure that was great environment to work within while executing A’s map project (a previous project) but I am not sure it would be best way for the future.”

The group was being too democratic. That must have made their democracy trainer really mad.

You’d like to think that there would be accountability, that somebody would take responsibility for this effort.

Not USAID. In making the debatable claim, “Any assertions that our work is secret or covert are simply false,” they refused to address the damage it inflicted on the existing discourse, or the risks placed on the Cubans from whom USAID involvement was concealed. USAID spokesman Matt Herrick: “It’s not something we are embarrassed about in any way.”

Not the State Department, whose spokesperson said in a briefing yesterday, “these programs are managed with appropriate discretion. So it was the responsibility of the grantee.” By grantee, we suppose she meant Creative Associates International. By responsibility, we think she was saying not the State Department’s problem.

Not the contractor, Creative. We visited the Creative website, and couldn’t find a trace of apology or even a Cuba program. Not in their news or press release page. We couldn’t even find a Cuba-Creative connection when we clicked on a map of the island on the page titled Where We Work. In the overt-covert world where they operate, Cuba seems to vanish without a trace.

We didn’t expect to find an apology because, truthfully, Washington really loves this stuff.

The U.S. Global Leadership Coalition held its annual tribute dinner the other night, an event which wags in Washington call the “Smart Power Prom.” Who was dubbed this year’s “Smart Power Prom King”? USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah.

The dinner was also a coronation of sorts for Senator Lindsay Graham, who will take the gavel from Senator Pat Leahy and chair the State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee when the new Congress convenes in January. The subcommittee oversees Dr. Shah and the programs he administers at USAID.

A trade reporter at the event quoted Graham as saying, “I challenge any other part of the American government to prove a better return on investment than USAID.”

He said that at dinner on Wednesday. If he stands by that statement today, well, that’s kind of sad.

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Freeing Alan Gross — Does it hinge on what the definition of “equivalence” is?

December 5, 2014

 ***

ANNOUNCEMENT: CDA has started a petition asking Senator Marco Rubio and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen to end the double-standard they adhere to by allowing top staffers to visit China while opposing U.S. citizens’ right to travel to Cuba. Watch the video below and sign the petition here.

***

A sad and troubling milestone was passed on Wednesday, which marked the fifth anniversary of Alan Gross’s arrest in Cuba.

This week, the State Department said, “[his] continued incarceration represents a significant impediment to a more constructive bilateral relationship.” Florida politicians demanded, predictably, that the administration tighten sanctions further rather than negotiate with Cuba for his release. As White House sources assured ABC News that the president and the National Security Council were working on a solution, his family said Mr. Gross is “wasting away.”

When members of a CDA delegation saw Mr. Gross in prison in 2011, it would have been unimaginable that this drama would last this long. After several other visits, it’s still inconceivable that his life — and the future of our relations with Cuba policy — now hinges on the definition of equivalence, when his route to freedom is simple and clear. Yet, this is where things seem to stand.

In 2009, Mr. Gross, a USAID subcontractor, was arrested in Havana for committing “Acts Against the Independence or Territorial Integrity of the State.” As Peter Kornbluh explained in the Nation, “Gross was arrested on his fifth trip to Cuba while attempting to create untraceable satellite communications networks on the island; a Cuban court subsequently sentenced him to fifteen years in prison.”

For years, Cuba’s government professed its willingness to negotiate for his release. A deal seemed imminent in 2010, as Newsweek reported, until U.S. assurances that the Helms-Burton-funded activities which led to Gross’ arrest would be trimmed back were undermined by USAID itself.

Then Cuba linked a solution to the fates of five imprisoned Cuban intelligence agents. They were arrested in 1998 and later convicted in a politically-charged trial that is still being reviewed due to allegations of misconduct by the U.S. government. For crimes that included failing to register as foreign agents to engaging in a conspiracy to commit espionage, the Cubans, known at home as “the Five Heroes,” received sentences from 15-years to life in prison.

While two of the agents, René González and Fernando González, served out their terms and returned to Cuba, Gerardo Hernández, Antonio Guerrero, and Ramón Labañino remain behind bars.

The logical formula for securing Mr. Gross’s release – a prisoner exchange covering the three Cuban agents – is hardly a state secret. As the New York Times said in its editorial, “A Prisoner Swap With Cuba,”

“The American government, sensibly, is averse to negotiating with terrorists or governments that hold United States citizens for ransom or political leverage. But in exceptional circumstances, it makes sense to do so. The Alan Gross case meets that criteria.”

Hardliners call negotiating with Cuba to free Mr. Gross “appeasement.” As Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-27) has said, “Cuba is a state-sponsor of terrorism. We should not be trying to barter with them. We must demand the unconditional release of Gross, not engage in a quid-pro-quo with tyrants.”

In explaining its opposition to a swap, the State Department says, “We’ve always made it clear that there’s no equivalence between an international development worker … and convicted Cuban intelligence agents.”

Well, to paraphrase President Bill Clinton, it depends on what the meaning of the word “equivalent” is.

Bill LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh argue in the Miami Herald today that the Gross and Cuban spy cases, while different, have greater similarities than our government admits:

“Both Gross and the Cuban spies were acting as agents of their respective governments – sent by those governments into hostile territory to carry out covert operations in violation of the other country’s laws. In both cases, their governments bear responsibility for their predicament and have a moral obligation to extricate them from it.”

To end the stalemate, LeoGrande and Kornbluh call for a “parallel humanitarian exchange,” based on deals between Cuba and the U.S. during the Kennedy and Carter administrations that led to the release of 31 Americans, including several CIA agents. One can easily see how an arrangement would work today.

For its part, the White House did not use the phrase “unconditional release” in its statement on Wednesday, but instead observed, “The Cuban government’s release of Alan on humanitarian grounds would remove an impediment to more constructive relations between the United States and Cuba.” A reciprocal humanitarian gesture would involve President Obama commuting the sentences for the remaining Cubans prisoners to time served.

In the end, the humanitarian concerns that bind the Gross and Cuban agents’ cases together define their equivalence. It is their common humanity that should motivate Cuba and the U.S. to set aside ideological differences and assert their nation’s vital interests in a bilateral negotiation that reunites all four prisoners with their families.

There are no known alternative solutions; no other ways to avoid further diplomatic drift that can only end in human tragedy. Not the equivalent of a tragedy, but the real thing.

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China Climate Deal a Model for Big Reforms on Cuba

November 14, 2014

The deal President Obama struck with China’s President Xi Jinping committing both countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions enraged climate change deniers, elements of the coal industry, and its core supporters in Congress.

If you look at what made the breakthrough possible, how it happened, how it will be implemented, and what motivated both sides to reach the agreement, it should also make hardline supporters of Cuba sanctions very, very nervous.

President Obama went to China for the leaders’ meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, which promotes economic cooperation in the region, and for bilateral talks with China’s president.

Preceding the bilateral meeting with President Xi, diplomats from China and the U.S. negotiated agreements on trade, visas, and security; the latter referring to a U.S. priority to get China’s military to adopt international norms and reduce conflicts over borders as well as disputes over fishing and land rights.

The climate change agreement, which came about after “nine months of quiet dialogue between the two countries,” was described by Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations as “a serious diplomatic breakthrough after years of unsuccessful efforts to do something big and joint that goes beyond clean energy cooperation and gets to one of the most sensitive parts of climate policy.”

China and the United States are the world’s two biggest emitters of carbon pollution, the main driver of climate change. Opponents of climate change legislation in the U.S. consistently cite China’s reluctance to cap its carbon emissions as evidence that action by the U.S. would be a futile exercise. By negotiating a deal with Xi, Mr. Obama has taken that excuse out of play.

According to James Fallows writing in The Atlantic, China was moved to action because it recognized that “environmental damage of all kinds is the greatest threat to its sustainability — even more than the political corruption and repression to which its pollution problems are related.”

What most infuriates President Obama’s domestic political opponents is not just the forward movement he produced through bilateral diplomacy before the two summits in China, but the fact that the president can fulfill our part of the agreement by taking executive action.

By pledging to use the power of his office to do what Congress has proven unable and unwilling to do, the president’s climate deal was called by one analyst, “arguably as significant on pure foreign policy terms as it is on environmental terms. It sets a precedent of the U.S. and China not just cooperating on a difficult issue — as a very rich country and a poorer country, their climate policies are necessarily at odds — but cooperating on global leadership.”

Equally important, the president demonstrated that his foreign policy could walk and chew gum at the same time by scoring several critical agreements with China while also reaffirming his concerns about China’s record on human rights.

There is no clearer case for what President Obama should do in Cuba than what he just accomplished in China.

He used engagement and quiet diplomacy to reach agreements that reflected the national interest of both countries. He will implement the deal by executive action. By reaching an agreement that replaced inaction by China with a substantial climate change commitment, he removed the greatest barrier — at least rhetorically — to real action on climate by the United States. He managed to negotiate these complicated accords ahead of two key summits so that he wouldn’t have to travel to the region empty handed.

Today, the greatest obstacle to progress with Cuba is the continued imprisonment of Alan Gross on the island and the sentences being served by three Cuban spies in the United States. Gross broke Cuban law by engaging in regime change activities, and the Cuban spies broke U.S. law by failing to register as foreign agents as they investigated exile terror groups that had killed Cuban citizens.

President Obama can use the powers of his office to strike the deal that will free Mr. Gross and the Cuban prisoners while also removing the biggest impediment to greater U.S. engagement with Cuba on a variety of issues, including human rights.

There is nothing he can do to win over his most virulent opponents in Congress. Just yesterday, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen denounced Cuba for its leadership in the fight against Ebola and criticized any effort to free Alan Gross that would include negotiations with Cuba.

But if the president wants to succeed at next year’s Summit of the Americas, where all of our nation’s hemispheric allies will be joined at the table by Cuba, he must make substantial changes in our foreign policy toward the island’s government, as Richard Feinberg argues here.

Just as he struck a deal with China to control carbon emissions over the objections of climate deniers while also restating our nation’s commitment to human rights, the president can overcome those invested in our current, polluted relationship with Cuba by changing the climate around U.S. diplomacy toward Cuba.

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After the Deluge: Is There Hope President Obama Will Act On Cuba?

November 7, 2014

Last summer, where was the “smart money” when a deluge of unaccompanied kids fled violence and despair in Central America to seek safe haven in South Texas, upending the drive for immigration reform in the Congress, and raising the possibility that President Obama would use his executive authority to reform the immigration system on his own?

NBC News spoke for the smart money when they assured us on July 29th, “Expect these actions to take place in August – after Congress leaves town.”

Yet, we’re still waiting. The President, presumably speaking for his administration, told Chuck Todd on Meet the Press that he would act after the midterms, “because it’s the right thing for the country.” He told immigration activists one month ago: “no force on earth can stop us.” In October, he was fired up and ready to go.

Now, according to some analysts, “The midterms may have killed bold executive action on immigration.”

Our point is? Nobody knows what the president will do. Whether it’s reforming immigration or modernizing U.S.-Cuba relations, nobody knows if we’re waiting for Godot or for the sun to come out tomorrow.

***

To the New York Times, such indulgent speculation is a distraction. On Sunday, the editorial board spoke again and pressed the President to “expand trade, travel opportunities, and greater contact between Americans and Cubans” on the way toward “reestablishing formal diplomatic ties.”

But, the Times said, to accomplish these very important things, the President first would have to remove the chief obstacle to a diplomatic breakthrough. That means cutting a deal with Cuba’s government to free Alan Gross by swapping him “for three convicted Cuban spies who have served more than 16 years in federal prison.”

This is political poison to hardliners who want sanctions on Cuba for perpetuity. It took a celebrated Cuban dissident, fiction writer, and blogger Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo just three words to lay out their position against taking action to secure Mr. Gross’s release: “Let him rot!”

It really works for hardline supporters of U.S. sanctions like Mr. Pardo – photographed here with Senators Bob Menendez (NJ) and Marco Rubio (FL) – to keep Alan Gross right where he is, precisely because his continued captivity is the biggest obstacle to the White House and the Congress approving big changes in Cuba policy.

Why else would they insist, month after month, year after year, that the only correct way for our government to secure Alan Gross’s freedom is by demanding Cuba release him unconditionally; something which Cuba demonstrates, month after month, year after year, it just won’t do?

Hardliners repeat three things to prevent progress in his case. They deny he did anything wrong. As Senator Rubio says, Alan Gross was “wrongfully jailed in the first place.” They oppose negotiations, or as Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen tweeted with Pardo-like pithiness: “No concessions.” They up the ante. Unless Cuba’s government releases Mr. Gross unconditionally, as Senator Rubio says, “The U.S. should put more punitive measures on the Castro regime.”

What made the New York Times editorial so effective was how it dismantled each objection to doing the deal.

The Times explained what Mr. Gross was actually doing in Cuba — pursuing a “covert pro-democracy” initiative that is illegal under Cuban law. Because this makes the “unconditional release strategy” a dead end, the Times said “The Obama administration should swap him for three convicted Cuban spies,” which could send most hardliners into a rage spiral.

Next, the editorial spelled out what happens if Mr. Obama approves the swap: “A prisoner exchange could pave the way toward re-establishing formal diplomatic ties, positioning the United States to encourage positive change in Cuba.” But, it closed saying, “If Alan Gross died in Cuban custody, the prospect of establishing a healthier relationship with Cuba would be set back for years.” It’s rotten for Mr. Gross and his family, and those really are the stakes.

***

Again, the smart money says Mr. Obama will “do something” on Cuba now that the midterms are over. So, when Presidential Press Secretary Josh Earnest sidestepped a reporter’s question this week, and wouldn’t rule out negotiations with Cuba to secure Mr. Gross’s freedom, it was tempting to think “That’s the signal! President Obama must be nearing the decision we’ve all been waiting for.” Well, it kind of depends which President Obama we’re talking about.

Is it the President who’s been punting on immigration? Or, is it the President who said Wednesday, “I’m the guy who’s elected by everybody, not just from a particular state or a particular district. And they want me to push hard to close some of these divisions, break through some of the gridlock, and get stuff done.”

Again, are we waiting for the sun to shine or are we waiting for Godot?

Nobody cares more about who’s going to show up in the Oval Office to make this decision and get stuff done than Alan Gross. Is there hope? We hope so. But nobody really knows.

Read CDA Director Sarah Stephens’ recent blog post about Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo’s “Let him rot” tweet here.

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The anti-isolationist, pro-free trade, Cuba embargo supporters

September 19, 2014

This week, two staunch defenders of the U.S. embargo against Cuba came out against isolationism and in favor of expanding global trade.

Huh?

Not that he didn’t mean it – although the AP headline, “Sen. Rubio adopts role of foreign policy hawk,” suggests otherwise – Senator Rubio gave a speech and published an op-ed marking clear lines between those he deems “isolationist,” including President Obama, former Secretary Clinton, and Senator Rand Paul, and those who understand the dangers of the world by involving themselves and our country in them.

The speech, as it appeared to the Washington Times, was part of Rubio’s larger political strategy, because he is “considering seeking the 2016 presidential nomination.” That logic we understand. But, it’s hard to reconcile Rubio’s interest in stopping flights to Cuba by American travelers and condemning investment overtures by the U.S. business community, with his principled opposition to isolationism.

Then, his colleague, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, gave flight on Twitter in favor of expanding trade and creating more jobs in South Florida. This made perfect sense, economically and politically. In the metro area where her South Florida district is located, exports in 2013 alone totaled $41 billion and accounted for 67% of Florida’s total merchandise exports, according to figures from the U.S. Commerce Department.

We get it. It’s good to be for jobs. However, it’s hard to reconcile her tweet for trade with her deeply personal criticisms of Floridians who seek to sell agriculture exports to Cuba. She once said of these Florida farmers, “They mask their greed with this veneer of humanitarianism but Mother Teresa they are not.” More recently, she called Alfonso Fanjul, a leader of the exile community, “pathetic” and “shameful,” because he wants to return to Cuba as an investor doing business in the sugar industry.

What she’s done is more than throw shade on her constituents. All of U.S. agriculture is affected by food export restrictions she supports, put into place by President George W. Bush. Corn and soy producers are still working Washington to get these barriers taken down 14 years after food sales to Cuba were legalized.

In their statements, Rubio and Ros-Lehtinen are doing more than grandstanding. We focus on them now – as we did two weeks ago after their staff members visited China on a junket paid for by the Chinese government – because their risible double-standards shouldn’t distract us from the serious human impacts of their policies to isolate Cuba, diplomatically and economically.

They support immigration policies which incentivize Cubans to take to rafts to gain entry into the United States, policies that just contributed to the largest death toll from any migrant boat disaster in more than two decades. Those policies also resulted in a criminal indictment of a Miami businessman who financed the operation that smuggled Yasiel Puig out of Cuba, who was then held captive in Mexico to extort a promise to pay the smugglers 20% of his future earnings.

At a time when Cuba is sending 165 medical professionals to fight the Ebola outbreak in Africa, they also support the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program, which is still working to accelerate the Cuban brain drain, when the U.S. should be backing every country responding to this humanitarian crisis, including Cuba.

None of this will lift the spirits of Alan Gross, the former USAID subcontractor, who is about to observe Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, for the fifth consecutive year in a Havana prison. He was convicted for activities financed by the Helms-Burton law, whose purpose is to overthrow Cuba’s government, activities that Rubio and Ros-Lehtinen both support.

Mr. Gross, we’re sure, won’t appreciate the irony of Senator Rubio, a declared opponent of diplomacy with Cuba to gain his release, now pledging his allegiance to the cause of anti-isolationism. Or that Rep. Ros-Lehtinen, devoted to trade as she is, is also a proudly committed obstacle to a deal swapping the remainder of the Cuban Five to secure his freedom.

It is diplomacy, not irony, that will lead to his release.

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The Roar of the Lion, and the Sound of a Whisper

September 12, 2014

Dear Friends:

When President Obama described our role in assembling the coalition the United States will lead into war, he called it “America at its best.”

But, when a State Department spokesperson took a question about U.S. cooperation with Cuba on an issue of “security and safety,” she reacted like a character in Harry Potter reluctant to say Voldemort, because “We do not speak his name.”

The backstory, reported below in greater detail, involves a private plane flying from upstate New York to Naples, Florida that lost contact with air traffic controllers. As it headed off its flight plan, two F-15 fighter jets were sent to investigate “an unresponsive aircraft [then] flying over the Atlantic Ocean.” Three persons were unresponsive and presumed dead before the plane crashed into the seas off Jamaica, after flying through Cuba’s airspace.

It should have come as no surprise that U.S. authorities were in contact with their Bahamian and Cuban counterparts. “Obviously,” Marie Harf said at the State Department podium, “this is an issue of security and safety, and so we were in touch as well.”

Nor was it a secret. The FAA had already gone on record with a policy statement, “FAA International Strategies 2010-2014, Western Hemisphere Region,” outlining its objectives relating to Cuba:

  • Work closely with the Department of Transportation (DOT), Department of State (DOS) and other U.S. Government agencies to support the Administration’s Cuba initiatives and policies as well as FAA mission critical operations.
  • Negotiate for the sharing of radar data with key partners adjacent to U.S. delegated airspace: Bahamas, Canada, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Haiti, Mexico, Saint Maarten.
  • Continue to work with the DOS to facilitate safety-critical operational meetings between the FAA and Cuban air traffic officials on a regular basis.

Yet, the terse answers to questions about the plane incident, and if it could be a model for future cooperation, sounded like the State Department was protecting state secrets. Read the full transcript of the briefing here and judge for yourselves.

For example, when Ms. Harf was asked about the flight incident, she offered a sparse 68-word recitation of the facts, before quickly referring reporters to NORAD and the FAA. After saying, “We have been in touch” with Cuba and the Bahamas, she replied, “I don’t have more details on those conversations,” and never mentioned the FAA’s strategy, publicly released in 2010.

As the reporter pressed further on whether the kind of cooperation that took place on the flight could expand to other “issues of national interest, like … security in the region,” she responded with boilerplate about talks on postal service and migration, but concluded, “I don’t have more for you on that issue than that.”

Apparently, there’s a fine line between putting together a Middle East coalition, an occasion to trumpet national pride, and an example of healthy cooperation with Cuba, which got little more than a meek mention at State.

It’s hard not to notice the contrast. CBS News labeled nations in the coalition as “frenemies” of the United States. As the State Department reported this year, citizens living in at least one of those nations, “lack the right and legal means to change their government; [face] pervasive restrictions on universal rights such as freedom of expression, including on the internet, and freedom of assembly, association, movement, and religion; and a lack of equal rights for women, children, and noncitizen workers.”

While the Administration has engaged with Cuba effectively, on a limited basis and in discrete areas like migration, environment, drug interdiction, and law enforcement, the White House and State Department prefer to keep these activities hidden below-the-radar, as if Parental Discretion was advised in their dealings with the American people.

The U.S. can and should do more. As we said in “9 Ways for US to Talk to Cuba and for Cuba to Talk to US,” it would be in the U.S. national interest to work with Cuba openly and closely on counterterrorism, military affairs, greater exchanges among scientists and artists and the like, while also developing what the countries have lacked for so long: a language for their diplomacy based on engagement instead of preconditions.

Doing this would reflect the values of Cubans and Americans alike. Such public diplomacy would also strengthen those in Cuba who take risks by supporting reform at home and engagement with the U.S. abroad.

Yes, this will be opposed by Members of the U.S. Congress who conflate engagement with appeasement. But, whispering about working with Cuba has never gotten them to stand down, and it never will.

So we say, stop whispering; engage more, unabashedly. If the Administration used its remaining time to make a more forceful commitment to diplomacy with Cuba, that would give all of us something to shout about.

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Rubio’s Secret: His China Policy Would Work Great in Cuba

September 5, 2014

Senator Marco Rubio is on to something. He’s already put together a smart replacement for his ineffective Cuba policy. He just doesn’t know it yet. It’s his China policy.

Late last week, we circulated the stunning news unearthed by the Tampa Bay Times captured by this appropriately stunning headline: “Chinese government pays for trip by aides to Rubio, Ros-Lehtinen”.

This was a story with a “why don’t I rub my eyes, am I dreaming?” quality to it. Yet, the Florida legislators, two fierce opponents of travel by Americans to Cuba, confirmed it was true. Sally Canfield, Deputy Chief of Staff to Rubio, and Arthur Estopinan, Chief of Staff to Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-27), had both accepted free travel junkets to China with costs picked up by the Communist Chinese state.

But, they reacted to the story very differently.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen pled ignorance of what she called “China’s involvement” in paying the costs for Mr. Estopinan’s trip, estimated at $10,000; this to a country she has accused of abusing human rights by harvesting human organs from prisoners.

Known for straightforward, even strident language, she issued a classic non-denial-denial: “As my legislative record shows, I disagree with the decision by my Chief of Staff to visit China and will take internal steps to ensure no trips like this happen again.”

Are we clear?

Rubio’s tack was entirely different.

In written comments, a spokesman for the statesman made a logical, three-point case for engaging with China, saying, in essence, ‘They’re bad, they’re big, so we have to talk.’

Point 1: “Senator Rubio has consistently condemned the totalitarian nature of the Chinese government, its record of systematic human rights violations and its illegitimate territorial claims.”

Point 2: “While he abhors many of the Chinese government’s actions, as a member of the Senate’s foreign relations and intelligence committees, he cannot ignore their growing geopolitical importance.”

Point 3: So, he “recognizes that staff travel approved by the U.S. government and Senate ethics is sometimes necessary in helping advance our advocacy on a host of foreign policy issues.”

This took guts. Yes, it was hypocritical for someone who had said that Americans who visit Cuba behaved as if they were visiting a zoo, getting “to watch people living in cages to see how they are suffering.”

Yes, the timing was awkward. As the trip scandal made news, China was embroiled in controversies over rigging an election framework in Hong Kong, interfering with a U.K. inquiry into its relations with Hong Kong, ending a newspaper column by a Chinese hedge fund manager in the Hong Kong Economic Journal, and using its anti-trust laws to curtail competition posed by U.S. businesses.

But, Rubio was being consistent. In the heat of the 2012 election, he broke with Mitt Romney, saying Romney’s plan to label China a currency manipulator was the equivalent of opening a trade war. In his recent comments about his staffer’s trip, he matches a plainspoken critique of China’s human rights practices and security threats with his practical and pragmatic support for dealing with China’s government.

Even after writing that in China, “Political persecution, including detention without trial and violations of fundamental human rights, are the norm,” Senator Rubio called upon “President Obama to speak frankly with President Xi about the areas where Washington and Beijing disagree.”

In other words, Senator Rubio does have a plan for dealing with China. It rejects sanctions, but supports travel, bilateral engagement, diplomacy, and straightforward talk.

Rubio’s approach on China would be an ideal replacement for his Cuba policy, if he had the guts to make the switch.

There is a lesson here for President Obama. On September 2nd, Jen Psaki, spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State, took a question at her news briefing about Panama’s intention to invite Cuba to next year’s meeting of the Summit of the Americas, a forum from which the U.S. has worked to exclude Cuba since it began meeting in 1994.

Rather than supporting an opportunity for engagement with Cuba focusing on areas, as Rubio might say, where Washington and Havana disagree, Psaki declared that Cuba’s presence at the forum would “undermine commitments previously made” including “strict respect for the democratic system.”

Two days later, her colleague, Marie Harf, called the building in which the State Department’s new “Diplomacy Center” will be housed, “a very cool thing indeed.”

Amidst peals of laughter among the assembled journalists, she explained, “Cool. It’s a technical term.”

Fact is that President Obama has a workable alternative to his Cuba policy. It’s called engagement. Engagement’s cool, too. But, using it, well, that would take guts.

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August Vacation and the Freedom to Travel

August 15, 2014

Just so you know, we are clearing out of the office for a week, which means we won’t be sending a fresh edition of the Cuba Central News Blast until August 29th. We’re going on vacation!

Of course, if we were working in Europe we’d have longer leave (and a better Cuba policy).  But, we still consider ourselves lucky, and still count ourselves as baffled that U.S. law frustrates the ability of most Americans to visit Cuba.

These restrictions on what Americans can do are imposed on us by the U.S. government in the name of advancing freedom in Cuba.  Which itself is altogether odd, when you consider that it is more restrictive, more bureaucratic, and more costly for nearly all Americans to receive permission from our government to visit Cuba than it is for Cubans to visit the United States or any other country.

Even worse, some policymakers in Congress would like to increase the restrictions on Americans who want to visit Cuba at a moment when more Cubans are coming to the U.S. and traveling the world than at any time since 1959.

Even worse than that, these same policy makers — the ones who restrict our rights to travel as a method for bringing democracy to Cuba — are also the biggest fans of our totally messed up “regime change” programs run out of USAID.  Read Fulton Armstrong’s recent piece about them here.   They want to shut the front door to Cuba while sending in a cast of amateurs and subversives through the backdoor.  To do what?  To break Cuba’s information blockade?   Isn’t that what travel’s for?

George Orwell could’ve designed the policy.  Some Americans — Cuban Americans, academics, and journalists — are more equal than others.  If you cannot be stuffed into one of these categories, you can journey to the island on a people-to-people program.  But it can be costly and the U.S. stipulates what you can do or can’t do once you arrive.

For most of Cuba’s post-revolutionary history, the government put tight restrictions on the right of their people to travel anywhere. The U.S. State Department is still handing out copies of a speech that President George W. Bush delivered in 2007, in which he said: “In Cuba it is illegal to change jobs, to change houses, to travel abroad…”

But, in January 2013, Cuba eliminated the requirement that its travelers obtain exit visas.  As Human Rights Watch reported this year, “Nearly 183,000 people traveled abroad from January to September 2013, according to the government. These included human rights defenders, journalists, and bloggers who previously had been denied permission to leave the island despite repeated requests, such as blogger Yoani Sanchez.”

The end of travel restrictions has begun a blossoming of economic and social openings for Cubans.  Cuentapropistas (self-employed Cubans, since it is now legal to change jobs) have reaped incredible material and professional gains from being able to purchase much needed inputs — at better prices and higher quality — and to meet their counterparts in the U.S., who share knowledge, experience and insight with them.

Our friend, Niuris Higuera, owner of Atelier Paladar in Havana, said she went home with “her head spinning from all the projects she wanted to develop in Cuba,” based on ideas she picked up in the States.

The experience was even more profound for young participants in a summer exchange program arranged by the Center for Democracy in the Americas and Cuba Educational Travel (CET) to bring four young Cubans to the U.S. to do homestays and internships.

As Collin Laverty of CET wrote us, Yoan Duarte, who graduated from the University of Havana in June and hopes to become a fashion designer, spent the summer in New York City shadowing some of the industry’s best. “The first few weeks I was constantly slapping myself in the face, thinking I was going to wake up in Havana at any moment. Now I’m eager to get back and put to work all the new skills I’ve acquired,” he said recently. Yoan plans to start his own clothing line upon return to Cuba.

Earlier today, the White House posted this paean to the travel industry, praising the growing number of jobs it is creating, the upward spiral of spending on travel and tourism-related goods and services, and how the U.S. hopes to welcome 100 million visitors per year by 2021.

We can only imagine what a stir would be created if Cubans and Americans of non-Cuban descent enjoyed the unrestricted right to exchange ideas and experience without any restrictions.  It would be good. It would be human.  But, today, that is not reality.

But the President can change that.  He has executive authority to broaden revenue-producing, information-exchanging, re-humanizing, and demystifying travel between the island and our country, which has outsized benefits compared to secreting USAID contractors into Cuba masquerading as advocates working on AIDS prevention, when they’re really trying to incite rebellion.

The choice ought to be clear to the President who, after all, got to go on vacation a week before us (which is, like, totally fair, ok?).

Happy vacation.

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Nixon Resigned, but “Dirty Tricks” in Cuba Live On

August 8, 2014

Today, August 8th, marks the fortieth anniversary of Richard Nixon’s decision to resign the presidency. History has been unkind to the 37th President of the U.S., and rightly so.  In one account of his resignation, Nixon is described as “paranoid, vicious, racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, with a casual disregard for anything besides his own standing.”  In another, presidential historian Robert Dallek calls Watergate, “the worst threat to America’s democratic institutions since the Civil War.”

In no review have we seen Nixon called to account for the demons he released in Chile; backing the overthrow of its democratically-elected President Salvador Allende, for his full-throated support for Allende’s successor, General Augusto Pinochet, or for Nixon’s blustering denials that the U.S. played any role whatsoever in Allende’s removal from office in a coup or for the carnage that followed.

 

In the Eisenhower Administration, Nixon was a champion of the Bay of Pigs invasion, the fiasco that ultimately dropped onto John Kennedy’s desk soon after he dispatched the Vice President in the 1960 election.  Declassified documents released by the National Security Archive say Nixon, who “proposed to the CIA that they support ‘goon squads and other direct action groups’ inside and outside of Cuba,” repeatedly interfered in the invasion planning.

 

As President, Nixon was mesmerized by the prospect that Allende could be elected Chile’s leader, and by the threat he could pull the penumbra of Communism across Latin America.  As Peter Kornbluh has reported, CIA director Richard Helms informed his senior covert action staff that “President Nixon had decided that an Allende regime in Chile was not acceptable to the United States.”  In a move that is familiar to Cuba watchers, Nixon ordered Helms and the CIA to “make the Chilean economy scream,” to prevent Allende from succeeding.

 

The CIA, as the New York Times reported, “spent $8 million in Chile supporting the political opposition and establishing a network of those committed to Allende’s downfall.”  When the coup took place, as Kornbluh writes in his book, The Pinochet File, thousands of Chileans were rounded up and taken to the National Stadium; several hundred were executed there. During Pinochet’s bloody 17-year dictatorship, thousands more were killed; to this day over 1,100 remain “disappeared.”

 

As with so much else, Nixon lied about Chile without relent.  He told David Frost in 1977 that “Allende was overthrown, eventually, not because of anything that was done from the outside, but because his system didn’t work in Chile and Chile decided to throw him out.” Just as he misled the nation about Watergate, “tricky Dick” grossly dissembled on the U.S. role in Chile.

 

Laid alongside what he wrought upon Chile, USAID’s activities in Cuba are mere “dirty tricks,” but we suspect Nixon would have loved them just the same; although, like us, he might be astonished by who oversees them in the White House’s Oval Office today.

 

Earlier this year, we reported on the development agency’s ZunZuneo scandal, disclosed by the Associated Press, in which USAID supplied an SMS service to Cubans with mobile telephones, never telling them it was created by the U.S. government or that they were being profiled politically.  USAID and the State Department loudly denied the truth of ZunZuneo’s regime change provenance.

 

As its Administrator Rajiv Shah told a Senate Subcommittee in April:

 

“To the extent that the AP story or any other comment creates the impression that this effort or any other goes beyond that for other ulterior purposes that is just simply inaccurate.”

 

Now, the AP has returned with a blockbuster on a group of “nearly a dozen [untrained] neophytes” from Latin America recruited for a mission by USAID contractor Creative Associates International to enter Cuba as tourists and “gin up rebellion” among the Cuban population; yes, this is eerily similar to what opened the door to Alan Gross’s prison cell that slammed shut behind him almost five years ago.

 

In one especially objectionable operation, they used their participation in an HIV prevention workshop as a “perfect excuse” to recruit political activists.

 

Senator Patrick Leahy (VT) called it “worse than irresponsible. It may have been good business for USAID’s contractor, but it tarnishes USAID’s long track record as a leader in global health.”

 

Yet, as William LeoGrande observed in the Huffington Post, “when AP blew the cover on the phony health program, USAID’s response was to stick by the ridiculous claim that it was just trying to help Cubans tackle a ‘community or social problem.’ USAID decried the AP story’s ‘sensational claims’ about the program’s subversive intent, declaring flatly, ‘This is wrong,’ but without actually denying any factual assertion in the piece.”

 

As Nixon sent the CIA into Chile, one member of its Directorate of Operations responded with this astute analysis:

 

“Covert operations to stop Allende from becoming president would be worse than useless. Any indication that we are behind a legal mickey mouse or some hardnosed play will exacerbate relations even further with the new government. I am afraid we will be repeating the errors we made in 1959 and 1960 when we drove Fidel Castro into the Soviet Camp.  If successful for the moment we would bring upon ourselves…a much worse image throughout Latin America and the World.”

 

The warning was ignored, and we know now what happened to Chile and to Nixon.  Will anyone persuade Obama to shut this “mickey mouse play” down?

 

A note: CDA will be taking a summer recess on the week of August 18. There will be no Cuba Central Newsblast on Friday, August 22.

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Friends Don’t Let Congress Drive Cuba Policy

August 1, 2014

Congress spent a month spinning itself into a frenzy over the crisis at the southern border of the U.S.

But, after weeks of photo ops, accusations that the Obama Administration created the crisis and failed to stop it, and shameful efforts to marginalize the children who fled poverty and violence in order to get here, nothing happened.

The least productive Congress in modern history has spun itself into a ditch.  It has made the migration crisis so dire and so toxic that even punitive legislation to fix it became too hot to handle.  Backed up against their own deadline for the August recess, neither the House nor the Senate could find enough votes to pass even band aid-sized fixes to a greater than tourniquet-sized problem.

As of this publication, the House leadership is considering how to press forward – making the legislation meaner to migrants, which dooms the bill to failure – or by taking the moral highroad and driving off on vacation.  In the meanwhile, both House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers (KY-5) and Speaker John Boehner issued statements telling the President to sweep up the mess by taking executive action (ironic, given the recent House decision to sue him for using his authority to implement health care reform).

There are media reports, such as here by the Wall Street Journal, saying the President will take broad action by September to address the crisis without waiting any longer for Congress to act.

While some in Congress hope the President will take executive action to fix the border, we and others have been urging the President to use his authority to make further reforms to U.S.-Cuba policy.

But, as the 44 signers of the letter supporting executive action on travel, negotiating with Cuba, and other issues, reminded President Obama in May, “Timing matters and this window of opportunity may not remain open indefinitely.”

What could close the window?  U.S. politics, as bad as it is, is likely to get worse.  There are just ninety-five days until the midterm elections take place; 156 days until the new Congress is seated.

What happens if today’s gridlocked Congress gives way to a 114th Session of Congress dominated by one party, as even non-partisan pundits predict today, and it takes on President Obama aggressively as he ends his term and the parties nominate candidates to replace him?  Does the window close and, if so, what happens to the hope for executive action then?

What happens if Charlie Crist, candidate for Governor in Florida, who has come out as anti-embargo and considered traveling to Cuba, is defeated in November by incumbent Governor Rick Scott in what is then interpreted as a referendum on Cuba policy reform?  What happens then?

What happens as policy changes that take long lead times – for example, solving the problem of a hemispheric boycott of the Summit of the Americas by inviting Cuba to participate – are eclipsed due to the passage of time?  What happens then?

What happens if Alan Gross’s physical health and mental state are as precarious as his legal team indicates?  If his condition deteriorates further, what happens then?

What happens if there is an abrupt change in the political structure in Cuba given the advanced ages of its senior leadership?  How could the window stay open then?

The President’s authority to take significant actions that reform Cuba policy, that free Alan Gross, whose imprisonment remains the chief obstacle to warming relations, and that speed the U.S. toward normalization, is greater than most people realize.  Once the Supreme Court acts, perhaps later this year, on a case with implications for the foreign policy powers of the presidency, the extent of his authority to make really big changes in U.S. – Cuba relations could grow larger still.

However, it is not the President’s power but his willingness to use it, given the political space he has and the time constraints that face him, which is pivotal now.  What also matters deeply – and we’re told, may matter more than many of us know – is whether the government in Havana understands just how close we are to the window of opportunity slamming shut.

President Obama’s actions in his first term to expand travel for Cuban families and people-to-people exchanges – described as modest here and disregarded as domestic politics by some in Cuba – continue to provide big benefits.  But, he can and should do a lot more.

To get there, it is President Obama and not Congress who must drive policy.  But, he should start revving the engine now before it is too late.

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