From Guantánamo to Key West: Fresh thinking on Cuba

September 6, 2013

If you are looking for news accounts of Diana Nyad’s swim across the straits, or the still-grounded airplane that can’t fly or broadcast news to Cuba, but can still waste taxpayers’ money, scroll down.

But, if you’re ready for some fresh thinking about U.S. policy toward Cuba, look here.

In a soon-to-be published report, Michael Parmly, former chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, Cuba, offers a detailed plan for addressing the problem of detainees imprisoned at Guantánamo. It deals with migration and refugee resettlement issues, and maintains the Navy’s presence in the Caribbean, while returning to Cuba rightful ownership of territory that’s been under U.S. control for over a century.

Parmly, a veteran U.S. diplomat, served in Cuba during a tumultuous period, when President Bush tried to terminate travel to the island by Cuban Americans, and ramped up regime-change efforts on the island.

The crucial theme sounded in the report centers on the sovereign rights of the Cuban people. Saying that the issue of Guantánamo “goes far beyond the question of the detainees,” Parmly writes: “If we want to be truly democratic about the question, the owners are the Cuban people. Yet they have never been asked their opinion.”

After he establishes the historic foundation for Cuba’s right to the territory, Parmly offers a thoughtful solution for adjudicating the cases of the detainees in ways that protect U.S. security and that, in his view, live up to U.S. obligations on human rights and international law.

Getting there requires diplomacy. Here, Parmly relies on his experience working on the negotiation of the Panama Canal Treaties and his insight into Cuba’s current leadership. He believes that President Raúl Castro would negotiate an agreement in Cuba’s interests that achieves these results.

The case he presents – founded on U.S. economic, foreign policy, and national security interests – complicates the lives of hardline exiles, who argue that Guantánamo should remain a U.S. possession until Cuba’s government is replaced. It will also be controversial for those who have long objected to U.S. conduct of what the previous administration called the global war on terror.

In other words, he suggests infusing fresh, creative thinking into a policy that has been frozen in the amber of its own ineffectiveness two decades after almost everyone celebrated the end of the Cold War.

Mr. Parmly’s paper, published by the Fletcher School of Diplomacy, will be available online later this month in a special edition of Fletcher Forum, marking the school’s 80th anniversary.

In 2009, CDA interviewed Dr. Peter G. Bourne, the Special Assistant on Health Issues during the Carter Administration, about the status of Guantánamo, and former president Fidel Castro’s vision for turning the naval base into an international medical center. The interview is available here.

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A Summer Reflection on the Right to Travel (in both directions)

August 16, 2013

When you last read the Cuba Central News Blast, our team headed out on vacation even as we awaited word about the intrepid Ben Friberg, trying to become the first paddle boarder to cross the Florida Strait from Cuba’s Port Hemingway to Key West, Florida.

With our vacation behind us, and summer’s end just before us, we were reminded how much we love travel and how the cause of restoring the rights of all Americans to travel freely to Cuba motivated us to create this news summary in the first place.

Ten years ago, travel rights hung in tatters. After President Clinton encouraged family travel, permitted all U.S. residents to send remittances, allowed more direct flights to Cuba, and opened broad categories of people-to-people travel, President George W. Bush totally reversed course.

His administration wanted to design a new, Made in America future for the Cuban people. He ended people-to-people travel.  He tightened limits on family travel and humanitarian assistance by executive action.  He convened a Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, which wanted to cut off travel in the belief they could bring the Cuban system to its knees by curtailing the flow of most tourist revenue to its government.

The Bush administration’s coordinator of the Office of Cuban Affairs calculated that travel restrictions cost the Cuban economy $375 million annually, and said in a speech in Miami: “To my way of thinking, these measures are already having their effect, and we are seeing it now in Cuba.  Will it move us toward that which we want, a democratic transition?  We don’t know…”

Well, we know: the policy didn’t produce changes in Cuba, but it kept blinders on the Americans who wanted to visit the island, so they couldn’t compare what U.S. government policy said about Cuba to the Cuban reality itself.  As Aldous Huxley famously said, “To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.”  U.S. policy allowed for no such discoveries, which is why the pro-sanctions crowd really finds travel restrictions so useful.

But, they never could shut off the tourists from every other nation who could visit Cuba without asking their government’s permission to go.  Any void created by the absence of U.S. visitors continues to be filled by tourists from the region and the rest of the world, more than a million and a half of whom visited Cuba in just the first six months of 2013.

To his credit, President Obama has taken steps to restore unlimited family travel for Cuban Americans, reopen people-to-people travel, allow more U.S. airports to serve the Cuban market, and renew opportunities for sending remittances to qualified Cubans for all U.S. residents.

We still haven’t reached the goal – freedom to travel for Americans – and the restrictions on U.S. travelers to Cuba remain tight.  The Associated Press bureau in Havana said it well earlier this summer:

“While millions of tourists visit Cuba each year from Canada, Europe and elsewhere, Washington’s 51-year-old economic embargo still outlaws most American travel to the island. However, tens of thousands of U.S. citizens are now visiting legally each year on cultural exchange trips. These so-called people-to-people tours are rigidly scheduled to comply with embargo rules...”

That said, when American travelers in increasing numbers can see Cuba’s architecture and cultural origins, reach out to its Jewish and gay communities, and experience its environmental diversity, on trips licensed by the U.S. Treasury; and when U.S. policy goes further, and loosens restrictions on the ability of Cubans to visit our country, thanks to epic staff work at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, as reported by Fox News, these are all steps in the right direction.

A year ago, the State Department told Congress that the president’s new travel policies were achieving its goals:  As Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson said, “The administration’s travel, remittance and people-to-people policies are helping Cubans by providing alternative sources of information, taking advantage of emerging opportunities for self-employment and private property, and strengthening independent civil society.”

The administration should do more.  Members of Congress are urging President Obama to expand people-to-people travel by making it permissible under a general license, and now is certainly the right time for him to act. The summer travel season may be ending here, but the need to secure two-way travel rights for all Cubans and all U.S. residents goes on.

One other thing:  Ben Friberg will go down in history as the first paddle boarder to cross from Cuba’ to the U.S., Caribbean 360 reports. He made the 28-hour, 111-mile journey: “to promote peace and understanding between Cuba and the US and to promote a healthy lifestyle.”  In doing so, he also became a symbol for the right to travel.

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Happy International Women’s Day…for all

March 8, 2013

March 8th is International Women’s Day.

It started more than a century ago to call attention to the struggles of women who worked as garment workers.

Now, it’s a global celebration; it still shines a spotlight on the harsh conditions that women confront, but also reminds us that making progress on women’s rights as human rights, equal access to economic opportunity and political power, will bring us closer to a more just world.

To join the celebration, our organization, the Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA), released this report, “Women’s Work: Gender Equality in Cuba and the Role of Women Building Cuba’s Future.”

It examines progress made by Cuban women toward gender equality since the 1950s and discusses how that progress can be sustained in the future.

We published the report after two years of fact-finding, collaboration with Cuban and U.S. scholars, and four research trips to the island, during which we interviewed dozens of Cuban women who spoke candidly to us about their lives, their gripes, and their aspirations.

In it, you will hear the voice of Emilia, an auditor who speaks three languages. She says, “I was born in the Revolution.  It has given me opportunities.” Mimi, an academic, who was told by a manager not to get married or have kids, discusses sexism in the workplace.  Barbara, a small business woman, who tells us about the decision making, the ability to save money, and the feelings of independence that come from being her own boss.

The story in Cuba is really interesting and really complex.  In the mid-1950s, the Cuban revolution made gender equality an important part of its political project.  After coming to power, Cuba’s government acted on its commitments and began addressing widespread attitudes that held women and a lot of other Cubans back.

If you just look at the numbers, the progress is extraordinary.  According to Save the Children, Cuba scores first among developing countries in maternal mortality, live births attended by health care personnel, female life expectancy at birth, and other factors.  It has tripled the number of Cuban women who work.  It has fulfilled the Millennium Development Goals for primary education, gender equality and reducing infant mortality.

These accomplishments are met with skepticism, even disbelief, by some in the U.S.; because Cuba has a tiny economy, it is not capitalist or rich and, by U.S. standards, it is not free.

But, it is also the case that these numbers don’t tell the full story.

Measured against key objectives of gender equality – do women have access to higher-paying jobs; can they achieve a fair division of labor at work and home; are they acceding to positions of real power in the communist party or government– Cuban women told us their country has a long way to go.

What about the future?  To address its economic problems, Cuba is taking steps to update its economic model – for example, cutting state jobs, and reallocating spending on health and education programs – that propelled women forward.  As Cuban scholars tell us, these actions could have real repercussions for women and gender equality.

So, the report concludes with recommendations about the role Cuban women can play in building their country’s future.

Because we believe that having a stable and prosperous Cuba ninety miles from our shores is in the national interest of the United States, our recommendations include steps the U.S. can take to signal its support for women and Cuba’s economic reforms writ large.

We are not alone in holding this view.  As Jane Harman, who served in the U.S. House and who is director, president and chief executive of the Woodrow Wilson Center, told the New York Times:  “Whether or not one favors major change in U.S. policy toward Cuba (which I personally do), shining light on the need to make Cuban women full partners in Cuba’s future is in everyone’s interest.”

You’d think the administration would agree.  After all, President Obama released a statement for International Women’s Day saying “Empowering women isn’t just the right thing to do – it’s the smart thing to do.”

But smart wouldn’t describe U.S. policy toward Cuba.  As Dr. Cynthia McClintock at George Washington University says, “It’s a contradiction. Here’s a country which has been doing well at this (gender equality) but we don’t want to deal with it.”

After failing for so long, it’s time for the U.S. to engage with Cuba differently.  If policymakers accepted Cubans’ humanity and ran U.S. foreign policy accordingly, we could support women, start repairing our relations with Cuba, and remove an irritant that has long divided us from the region.   That is why we hope Congress and the Executive Branch really pay attention to what we report and recommend.

Happy International Women’s Day.

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Like Wishing Upon a Star: Most Travel Restrictions (On Cubans) Vanish Monday

January 11, 2013

Next week, when Cuba drops travel restrictions on most of its citizens, Ana Liliam Garcia, a 16-year-old, plans on chasing a dream:  “I would like to see Disneyland in the United States,” she told the Associated Press.  “I’ll be able to travel!”

You can argue whether this represents a triumph of American culture. But, these reforms really matter, and they ought to take the discussion about U.S. policy and Cuba to a different level.

Cuba’s government imposed travel restrictions on its citizens in the early 1960s as the country experienced a “brain drain” following the Revolution.  For decades, Cubans detested the limitations symbolized by the tarjeta blanca or white card, the exit permit they had to obtain through a costly and convoluted bureaucratic process.  This restriction on the right of Cubans to leave and return to their country has been a deep source of concern to the global human rights community and a predicate for U.S. criticism of Cuba’s system.

Last fall, President Raúl Castro’s government announced an overhaul of its migration laws which will take effect on Monday.  Beginning January 14th, Cubans will need only a visa and a valid passport to leave their country; the white card will vanish, fees will be reduced, and official permission to come and go will no longer be required for most Cubans.

Some obstacles – for military officers, top scientists, and highly prized athletes – will remain in place.  Dissidents are not likely to be free to come and go.  Of course, Cuba’s decision not to change everything is already an excuse among hardliners in the U.S. for saying that Cuba hasn’t changed anything.

But, as Reuters reports, the verdict among the people whose interests are most directly affected is clearly being rendered.  Hundreds of Cubans are waiting in long lines to apply for passports in advance of the reforms becoming effective. As one Cuban told NPR, “These measures that the government is taking are a good step. Our rights have been oppressed for too long, but Cuba is changing.”

We hope President Obama is paying attention.  He has undertaken incremental but worthwhile reforms in U.S. policy, while simultaneously denying that anything meaningful has been taking place in Cuba during his presidency.  After Cuba released scores of political prisoners following talks with the Catholic Church; after the Castro government implemented the most significant changes in its economic model in six decades; after Colombia turned to Cuba to help it broker peace talks with the FARC, U.S. policy remains in an official state of denial that its goals are being met.

Cuba did not initiate these sweeping travel reforms to elicit a positive reaction from the U.S.  It long ago wearied from the repetitive process of doing things it wanted to do – that the U.S. also wanted done – only to find that U.S. policy had adopted new demands.  It will be hard for them to imagine that this time will be any different.

But, is it really possible that President Obama will feel comfortable ignoring another tangible change in the Cuban reality and insist, as he has said about Cuba so often, “If we see positive movement then we will respond in a positive way.”  Especially now that Cubans will have more freedom to see the world than American citizens have to visit Cuba?

This time, it shouldn’t be that hard.  If Ana Liliam Garcia doesn’t have to wish upon a star to have her chance to see Disneyland, that’s a real change.  It merits a real response.

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To Ring in the New, we have to Wring out the Old way of Doing Things

January 4, 2013

At the beginning of 2013, there’s a lot of attention being paid to the precarious health of Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chavez, fighting his cancer in a Havana hospital.  While some of the analysis seems genuine and reality-based – see, for example, Caracas Connect here, Just the Facts here, and the New York Times here – there is also a lot of the same ghoulishness and immaturity that arises whenever the health of former President Fidel Castro appears uncertain.

Any idea of advancing the U.S.-Venezuela relationship, such as posting ambassadors in either country’s capital, appears to be captive to Mr. Chavez and his mortality.  It’s not just an odd, but also a self-defeating way to run relations with one of our most important trading partners in the region.  Worse, it’s based on a broken model (see the Helms-Burton prohibition on the U.S. government recognizing Cuba’s government until both Fidel and Raúl Castro have parted from the scene).

But this is all very much part of an enduring flaw of U.S. foreign policy; namely, its preoccupation with the identity of who is running a country and its subordination of things which matter more – like deciding what demonstrates our national character or what defines and realizes our national interest.

Consider, for example, the retirement of Harry Henry, age 82, and Luis La Rosa, age 79, who recently completed six-decades of service as Cuban nationals working at the Navy’s Guantanamo Air Base in Cuba.  As the Miami Herald reported, they left work in December after a celebration of their service, but with complete uncertainty about whether they would be paid by the U.S. government the pensions that they earned.

Today, the Herald reports that a solution was found, but those of us who pay taxes in the U.S. to support the Pentagon will not be told which public servant in the Department of Defense allowed his sense of character to prevail over his government’s ideological inflexibility in order to work with Cuba to find a solution and pay the pensioners what they are owed.

Or consider the news from the peace talks brokered by Cuba and other nations, conducted in Havana, between the government of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.  Earlier this week, the Associated Press reported that Colombia’s President Juan Miguel Santos “insisted” that the talks not be held in Colombia, but pressed the FARC to have the negotiations in Cuba “for security above all because it guaranteed confidentiality,” according to the brother of President Santos.

We don’t know whether the talks will succeed, but it forces us to wonder whether a public servant in the U.S. Department of State might be stricken with conscience and speak up before his ideologically inflexible government continues listing Cuba as a state sponsor of terror because it allows members of the FARC in Cuba.  Taking Cuba off the list, as a column in the Los Angeles Times said earlier this year, “would restore some degree of seriousness to the exercise…and pave the way for further counter-terrorism cooperation between [our two] countries,” important benefits for the national interest.

And, finally, consider the question, who is running our policy really?  In “Can Kerry make friends with Cuba?” Nick Miroff writes:

Regardless of Kerry’s record on Cuba policy in the Senate, analysts say he will face several obstacles to major change, not least of which will be the man likely to replace him as chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey), a Cuban American.

“On Latin America, in general, I think Kerry has a longer and broader vision,” said Robert Pastor, professor of international relations at American University. But when it comes to Cuba…changing US policy is not a high priority for him, but not changing US policy is the only priority for Bob Menendez,” Pastor said.

As a nation we begin the new year much as we left the old: with a policy that long-ago outlived any usefulness it offered during the Cold War, driven by personalities, and held captive by the medical conditions of leaders with whom our government disagrees, rather than being guided by what, in fact, is in the national interest and consistent with the national character of the U.S.

The alternative is what the editors of Bloomberg wrote on December 31st:

“We hope that the 51st year of the U.S. embargo against Cuba will be its last. Obama eased some restrictions in his first term — and he won half the Cuban-American vote in November. He can now encourage free-market advocates in Cuba by lifting sanctions that even most Cuban-Americans don’t think serve any purpose — the sooner the better, given the flood of Cuban émigrés that new travel freedoms may begin to unleash this month.”

Happy New Year.

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On Next Week’s Vote (the U.N.) and Last Week’s Vote (the U.S.)

November 9, 2012

On November 13th, the U.N. General Assembly will vote on a resolution titled the “Necessity of ending the economic, commercial and financial embargo imposed by the United States of America against Cuba.”

The General Assembly has voted against U.S. policy for twenty straight years.  In 2011, the resolution passed by 186 in favor versus 2 against (Israel and the U.S.), with 3 abstentions (Micronesia, Marshall Islands and Palau).

We can guarantee you two things about next week’s vote:  The resolution will pass in a landslide, and it will attract little notice in the U.S., which is a disgrace.

U.S. sanctions against Cuba are among the most restrictive our government imposes against any nation. With few exceptions (limited legal travel, some agriculture sales, and highly regulated medical trade) U.S. citizens and corporations are prevented by the embargo from buying or selling into the Cuban market.

The embargo is unilateral.  No one willingly joins the U.S. in enforcing it.  But our sanctions exert pressure on countries that trade with Cuba, foreign companies that do business in Cuba, the international financial system, and humanitarian agencies to try and stop the flow of money, commerce, aid, technology, spare parts, and the like to Cuba.  In doing so, we are trying to run the foreign policies of every state in the world community and they resent it. That’s the point of the U.N. vote; they get to say so.

Next Tuesday, here’s just a brief list of who will line up to vote their scorn of U.S. policy: Australia, Brazil, China, the entire European Union, all the governments in Latin America and the Caribbean, India, Japan, Russia, and South Africa, even the Vatican.

Here, we must point out:  when Pope Benedict the XVI visited Cuba this year, he didn’t have to apply to the U.S. Treasury Department for a license to travel before he went.  Perhaps the Holy See regards U.S. sanctions as a moral issue.

It’s that, and more.  U.S. policy is cruel to Cubans.  It imposes arbitrary limits on our freedom to travel.  It hurts U.S. industries that could do business on the island.  It thwarts direct U.S. engagement with Cuba’s government on security and environmental issues.  And, it’s failed to achieve what the Cold Warriors who designed it intended; namely, to replace Cuba’s political and economic system with parts designed in Washington and installed in Havana.

Finally, the embargo hurts us in Latin America and the world.  So, after twenty years of getting a black eye at the U.N., isn’t it time to blink?  Or think?

Carlos Iglesias, a U.S. Navy Commander and a candidate for a Master’s Degree at the Army War College, believes that the time has arrived.  His thesis, submitted last month, said this about the “longstanding blowback” against the policy globally and concludes it isn’t worth the cost:

“…decades-long sanctions against the island have netted few if any national objectives, all the while depleting substantial national soft power. The cost-benefit analysis to U.S. national foreign policy will remain exceedingly unfavorable, if not outright counter-productive.”

We’re hopeful President Obama understands this intellectually.  Now, he can take command politically.  He’s been reelected to a second term.  He won Florida, and scored an unprecedented victory winning a majority of the Cuban-American vote.  There is no longer any justification for him to remain tethered to this failed policy.

He’s still stuck with much the same Congress, a lagging indicator, so often steps behind public opinion.  But after his victory, the president is free – not to be a laggard but a leader.  He can use his executive authority to start dismantling sanctions first imposed on Cuba before he was born and, by doing so, get our national interest and the international community into alignment.

That’s the right thing to do.

Who knows?  Maybe Rep. Paul Ryan will return to his original pro-travel, pro-trade position that he adopted at the start of his career in Congress, since the campaign is behind him, too.

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Opening the Flawed Gates

October 19, 2012

In the U.S. and overseas, Cuba’s government has been criticized for limiting the travel rights of its own citizens.  Those restrictions are often cited as an obstacle to the improvement of bi-lateral relations.  But now, change has come.

Today, we explain this new Cuban government policy that offers its citizens a path for both exit and return, and talk about what it means.  Finally, we ask whether Washington will simply ignore what has occurred, or react in a meaningful way.

This is news.  Effective January 14, 2013, the Cuban government will abolish the widely resented and costly exit visa and the accompanying invitation letter that Cubans have been required to obtain in order to travel abroad.  The reforms to the 1976 Migratory Law and 1978 Migratory Law Regulations, published in the Official Gazette, herald an enormous change.

As explained in Granma, the new migratory regulations were adopted as a “sovereign decision by the Cuban state [and] do not constitute an isolated act, but are rather an important component of the irreversible process underway to normalize relations with the country’s émigré community.”

Cuban Americans For Engagement (CAFÉ), whose members have been holding talks with representatives of Cuba’s government about eliminating barriers to reconciliation between Cubans on the island and in the diaspora, see this reform as evidence that engagement is the key to bringing about change.

Enthusiasm over this development has future travelers forming long lines at immigration offices to take advantage of the current passport fee, which will nearly double to $100 in mid-January. This price hike has prompted Senator Marco Rubio of Florida to dismiss the move as merely cosmetic and transferring the costs associated with the exit visa to the process of passport issuance. But the Senator is misinformed. In fact, the new law cuts costs by a third.

As we understand, the current fees for travel documents are roughly: passport, $55; exit visa, $150; and invitation letter, $100 and up. Under the new law, the passport will be the only necessary document. Those already holding a passport in January (including those standing in line today) will be able to get a free stamp to upgrade it to the new system.

Moreover, the permitted length of stay abroad has been expanded from 11 months to 24 months. This leads to major potential savings because Cubans are, and will continue to be, charged a monthly fee for extensions. The amount of this fee will remain unchanged. On the other hand, the law stipulates terms for pensioners to continue receiving their income while abroad or to designate a substitute recipient.

Although the reforms clearly delineate who will be considered eligible for a passport and travel and who will not, the wording in some instances is vague enough as to be open to interpretation. For example, one category of ineligible individuals includes those whose absence would hinder the preservation of a qualified workforce. But it should hardly come as a surprise the Cuba’s government would try to “attenuate the effects” of brain-drain, as Jesús Arboleya Cervera explains in Progreso Weekly, which “limits the development of Third-World countries.”

Less noticed, the reforms are not a one way street. For example, of special interest to Cubans who have absconded over the years while on authorized travel, starting next year, émigrés will be able to apply to recoup their residency directly at any of Cuba’s embassies or consulates.

There is fine print and more to learn, but on the whole, this is very good news.  Cuba moves closer to the travel freedoms for its citizens as urged by the human rights community.  Most Cuban citizens, come January, will be able to think, practically, about exit and return to the island, about employment elsewhere and sending money home to relatives.  This strikes a blow for the autonomy of everyday Cubans and the vitality of the Cuban economy.

To date, our State Department hasn’t offered much reaction.  When asked at her press briefing whether the U.S. would react positively to the reforms, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said:

MS. NULAND: Well, as you know, we’ve been very outspoken. We are not shy in all of our public and private comments on Cuba that we want to see the human rights of the Cuban people respected. This is certainly a step, but I would advise that even with regard to this step, we await further information, because as I said, it’s not being implemented until January 14th.

If the Eeyores at the State Department need inspiration for how to react, they could turn to CAFÉ, which implores the U.S. to reciprocate by eliminating the Cuba travel ban, thereby bringing U.S. “policy in line with international models.” Or to Rep. James McGovern (MA-3), whose recent essay in Politico calls upon next president to move beyond the Cold War and normalize relations with Cuba.

Now is the time for a creative and affirmative U.S. policy response.  But, we’re not holding our breath.  And we suspect the Cubans aren’t either.  That said, this is real change and it really ought to be acknowledged.

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