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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On Ending Pipsqueak Diplomacy

October 3, 2014

We offer three loud, enthusiastic cheers to our friends Bill LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh.  Their new book, Back Channel to Cuba, immediately made news and refocused discussion on the decrepit state of U.S.-Cuba diplomacy.

“Clobber the pipsqueak” was Henry Kissinger’s call to war against Cuba.

Using documents obtained from President Gerald Ford’s presidential library, LeoGrande and Kornbluh detail the former Secretary of State’s rage at Cuba for disrupting the détente he had designed with Russia and the opening of China by sending its troops to help Angola preserve independence against attacks from South Africa, then our anti-communist ally.

As the New York Times reports, Kissinger set in motion the creation of contingency plans whose options included blocking Cuban ships from carrying troops and weapons to Africa to the bombing of Cuban bases and airfields.

A decision to strike the island was delayed until after the 1976 presidential election since, as one document said, “Escalation to general war could result.” Had President Ford beaten Jimmy Carter at the ballot box, we might well have found that out.

That even the idea of war was contemplated just fifteen years after the Cuban missile crisis is astonishing, as the authors said on MSNBC, since the agreement which ended it reflected a U.S. promise not to attack Cuba.

Although war fever spiked again during the Reagan years, diplomatic isolation, interrupted by episodes of engagement on matters like migration, has defined U.S. policy toward Cuba even under President Obama.

Yet, as Kornbluh and LeoGrande write in The Nation this week, “Obama can’t dodge the Cuba issue much longer. The Seventh Summit of the Americas, scheduled for Panama next spring, will force Cuba to the top of the president’s diplomatic agenda.”

Created in 1994, the Summit of the Americas has convened leaders of Western hemisphere nations six times without Cuba at the table.  Cuba is barred, chiefly at the behest of the United States, because it is not a democracy.

But, as Uruguay’s Foreign Minister Luis Almagro told the Miami Herald this week, Latin America has united behind the position “that Cuba should be part of the 2015 Summit.” By inviting Cuba, Panama “has welcomed this desire and I believe that the invitation sent to Cuba is good news for the inter-American family.”

Panama has put President Obama in a pickle.

As Nick Miroff, writing for the Washington Post, frames the choice:

“(If) Obama skips the conference, or sandbags it by sending Vice President Biden, it would render the already-weak OAS even more hobbled, and potentially deal a fatal blow to the possibility of future summits.

“If Obama does attend, it could lead to some awkward shoulder-rubbing with Raul Castro.”

This choice is not complicated for hardline supporters of our current policy like Senator Robert Menendez, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman.  In a rather apocalyptic letter to the president of Panama, Menendez wrote:

I am gravely concerned that inviting the Government of Cuba to the next Summit of the Americas sends the wrong message about the consolidation of democracy in the Americas, will dramatically weaken the democratic credentials of the premier meeting of heads of state in the hemisphere, and ultimately will undermine the validity of the Summits’ declarations.”

Not to be outdone, Mauricio Claver-Carone, Director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, predicts in the Miami Herald “a veritable unleashing of authoritarian ambitions in the hemisphere” if Cuba is seated at the summit.

Tiptoeing for time, the U.S. State Department approaches the problem as if it weren’t imminent. As Jen Psaki, State’s spokesperson said in a briefing: “Well, as I understand it, it was an announcement of (an) intention to invite.”

But, denial is not diplomatic.  As Fulton Armstrong and Eric Hershberg write this week, “Latin America sees Cuba as a full member of the hemisphere and has lost all patience with those in Washington who would deny that.”

The theme connecting Kissinger’s arrogance in 1976 to Senator Menendez’s easy dismissal of the prerogatives of Panama’s democratically-elected president is the inherent disregard that U.S. diplomacy has for Cuba’s existence as a sovereign nation.

That’s how we used to treat Vietnam.  Now, the Obama administration is selling its government lethal weapons, “to help Hanoi strengthen its maritime security as it contends with a more assertive China.”

There are much better reasons – such as rebuilding U.S. ties to the region – for the U.S. to drop its pipsqueak approach to Cuba and adopt a more robust diplomacy based on engagement.

A lesson drawn by Kornbluh and LeoGrande from six decades of back channel dialogue is that replacing hostility with reconciliation is not only possible, but capable of serving “the vital interests of both nations.”

Time, as they say, is running out, but President Obama can still rise to the occasion.

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Ending the Embargo: Can “Brand America” Bail Obama Out?

September 26, 2014

Not a great week for President Obama or his resilient support for the U.S. embargo against Cuba.

With heads of state and government gathering at the United Nations for the 69th Session of the General Assembly, Juan Manuel Santos, President of Colombia, and Salvador Sánchez Cerén, President of El Salvador, spoke out strongly against the U.S. embargo.

Santos said, “I have faith that the United States and Cuba can form a working relationship that allows the United States to lift the embargo that from my point of view has failed.”

In his first General Assembly speech as president, Sánchez Cerén said, “In the pursuit of peace efforts, and of equitable development there is no place for the disdain of fundamental principles and freedoms which is found in the economic, trade and financial blockade against the sister republic of Cuba.”

These strong words, coming from leaders of America’s staunchest allies in the hemisphere, merely echo what has already been said by influential foreign policy voices – like Hillary Clinton, Yoani Sánchez and, yes, John Oliver.

Earlier this year, former Secretary of State Clinton described to Jorge Ramos why she now favors lifting the embargo.

“I think it has propped up the Castros because they can blame everything on the embargo…You don’t have freedom of speech, you don’t have freedom of expression, you know, you’re still having political prisoners, everything is blamed on the embargo.”

Yoani Sánchez, the Cuban dissident, who has gone from communicating with the outside world with flash drives, to winning a Yahoo! fellowship at Georgetown University, wants the U.S. to end the embargo for a similar reason.

“I come from a generation of Cubans that have grown up with an official discourse constantly running through my ears that has expertly used the embargo as its foremost excuse — blamed for everything from the lack of food on our plates to the lack of liberty in the streets.”

Commenting on President Obama’s decision this month to extend Cuba’s status as the only nation on Earth subject to trade sanctions under the World WWI-era Trading with the Enemy Act, John Oliver told his HBO audience this week:

“Cubans blame the embargo for everything — the economy, the weather, the complete collapse of Homeland in its second season which, to be fair, Cubans probably haven’t seen but if they do they’ll hate it and they’ll blame the embargo for it.”

Clinton, Sánchez, and Oliver make a point President Obama has not fully absorbed; namely, it’s possible to have differences with Cuba’s government, political system, and economy and still see that the embargo, started by the Kennedy Administration and held together by a law enacted in 1917, has completely “failed.”

If the President wanted to consider a “newer” approach, he might read the remarks on Burma by Charles H. Rivkin, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Economic and Business Affairs.

As you may know, our State Department is extremely critical of Burma’s systemic human rights abuses, extrajudicial killings, restrictions on speech, press, assembly, association, religion, and movement, and for its 45 prisons, 100 government labor camps, and 60,000 prisoners.

In Burma, however, Rivkin sees no place for an embargo. He’s heard “what American companies faced — or have faced in the wake of sanctions. They range from other foreign investors taking advantage of our absence to our own reporting requirements.”

Instead, he believes the U.S. business community – representing “Brand America” – will help take Burma where it needs to go: “towards a more connected, vibrant, and prosperous future.”

He argues this: “When people buy American, they buy into our values and beliefs as well as our culture of practicality and trust in the open market.”

Admittedly, this is the homeliest argument we’ve heard for ending sanctions and promoting U.S. investment in countries whose political systems we oppose. But, if the President buys it and applies it to Burma, he should seize it as a rationale for ending the embargo of Cuba — particularly now.

In the next few weeks, the UN General Assembly will turn its attention to Cuba, where resolutions condemning the embargo have been adopted by increasingly lopsided margins for 22 consecutive years.

As John Oliver observed Sunday night, “It’s been a while since Cuba was a genuine threat, and by continuing the embargo, we’re not just pissing them off, we’re pissing off almost the entire world.”

We can’t do any worse than the vote in 2013, which the U.S. lost by 188-2, even after the U.S. has spent the last year cranking up the embargo machinery against many of our closest allies.

But why even try?

If “Brand America” can ride to the President’s rescue, he should probably saddle it up.

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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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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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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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A Single Standard of Justice

July 18, 2014

In the news summary that follows, you will find reports about a new investigation into the USAID Cuban Twitter scandal, the growing impact of the increasingly tight enforcement of U.S. sanctions against Cuba and other nations on banks and global commerce, and the resumption of peace talks in Havana between Colombia and the FARC.

But first, we wanted to acknowledge what is unfolding in and near “a large wheat field dotted with purple flowers and Queen Anne’s lace,” in the lyrical prose of Sabrina Tavernise, a reporter for the New York Times.  This is where wreckage from Malaysia Flight 17 and the remains of some of its 298 crewmember and passengers came to rest in Eastern Ukraine after it was shot down a little more than a day ago.

The victims included 80 children, three of whom were infants, a number of AIDS researchers and activists, the spokesman for the World Health Organization, and a graduate student from Indiana University, who was a chemist and a member of the IU rowing team.

The circumstances surrounding the shoot-down of this airliner are reminiscent of an earlier tragedy during the Cold War, when a Korean Airlines Flight was shot down in 1983 by Soviet fighter pilots. That resulted in the loss of 269 people, including a Member of the U.S. Congress.

Today, our memories were also stirred by a catastrophe that took place on October 6, 1976; not half a world away, but here in the Americas. Then, like now, the victims, 48 passengers and 25 crew members, were civilians; many were also young, including all 24 members of the Cuban Fencing Team, five Guyanese medical students, the wife of a diplomat and others.

Their Cubana de Aviacion Flight 455 had just taken off from Barbados when at least one bomb exploded and knocked the plane out of the sky.  This was, as Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archives has often said, the first mid-air bombing of a civilian airliner in the Western Hemisphere.  All aboard – 57 Cubans, 11 Guyanese, and five North Koreans – were lost.

As we prepared this publication, the UN Security Council issued a statement calling for a “full, thorough and independent investigation” of the Malaysian airliner tragedy. Leaders from around the world called for an investigation and for accountability.

In the 38 years since the bombing of Flight 455, there has been no accountability for the loss of life; the families of the victims are not even mentioned in the news coverage of Malaysian Flight 17, as broadcast and print journalists recall similar incidents in the past.

Yet, Luis Posada Carriles, one of the two masterminds behind the bombing of the Air Cubana flight, continues to live and walk free in Miami, despite outstanding extradition requests from Cuba and Venezuela, which have yet to receive the response they merit from the U.S. government.

In some quarters, it will doubtless be controversial for us to remember that justice has still not been served in the case of Flight 455.

But our interest is in reforming Cuba policy to help the United States get past the double-standards that were deemed acceptable during the Cold War, but which are injurious to the national interest today, and adopt a single standard of justice in cases like this, now and into the future.  The dignity of the victims in these cases demands nothing less.

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Wise Use of Executive Authority Could Navigate Obama off the 404 page

April 25, 2014

Thanks to ZunZuneo, President Obama has tweeted his Cuba policy into an Error 404 page.

Just this week, ZunZuneo rattled Roots of Hope, a non-profit that professed distance from government-funded “democracy promotion” programs, when the Associated Press exposed the role played by some of its leaders in the Cuban Twitter project.

It rankled Costa Rica after the AP reported that a USAID manager stationed in San Jose played a role in supervising the project, dragging a staunch U.S. ally which respects Cuba’s sovereignty into the regime change row.

And it continued to roil press relations with the State Department, where Jen Psaki, the spokesperson, was still telling reporters that USAID had not yet finished reviewing the tweets ZunZuneo sent to Cubans to determine their political content three weeks after the scandal broke.

The 2012 election should have freed the president’s hand.  But, after the President vanquished former Gov. Romney – who famously said in Florida, “If I’m fortunate enough to become the next president, it is my expectation that Fidel Castro will finally be taken off this planet” – his Cuba policy is staggering under the weight of a really dumb program that he inherited from his predecessor.

How can the president navigate back?  He should use his authority to revive his Cuba policy in ways that demonstrate his leadership and understanding of the post-Cold War world.

Take Cuba off the State Sponsors of Terror List.  President Reagan listed Cuba for political reasons, and politics is the only justification for why it remains falsely accused and heavily penalized.

Even though the Department explains the list by saying, “the Secretary of State must determine that the government of such country has repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism,” the report it issued last year read like a concise statement for Cuba’s exoneration.

It said, Cuba distanced itself from Basque terrorists.  It changed from offering safe haven to some members of the FARC to hosting peace talks between it and Colombia’s government.  The report even said, “There was no indication that the Cuban government provided weapons or paramilitary training to terrorist groups.”  The sole criticism it contained — that Cuba harbors fugitives wanted in the United States — is not a condition for including any country on the terror list.

Above politics, there are a number of compelling reasons – all in the U.S. national interest – for the President to remove Cuba from the terror list, and some urgency for him to take this step now.

Reconsider the sentences of the remaining members of the Cuban Five. This week, the New York Times endorsed a decision by the U.S. Department of Justice to reinvigorate the clemency power of the executive branch with this reminder:

“Throughout American history, presidents from Abraham Lincoln to Harry Truman to Gerald Ford have used the power of executive clemency to help bring an end to war, or to promote national healing in its aftermath.”

This brings us – and ought to bring the President – to the case of the Cuban Five, “now in their fifteenth year in prison for conducting espionage operations, mostly against exile groups with violent pasts,” as Peter Kornbluh explained in the Nation last year.

Although its negotiating position has shifted over the years, it has long been clear that the Cuban government will negotiate for the release of imprisoned U.S. contractor Alan Gross so long as its “humanitarian concerns” for these prisoners are also met.

Since his arrest in 2009, the U.S. government has fecklessly called for Mr. Gross’s unconditional release, despite his conviction in a Cuban court for activities our government knew were illegal before he was sent to Cuba under a USAID regime change program.

As recently as this month, Secretary of State John Kerry, in testimony before Congress, rejected a prisoner swap because it implies Cuba’s spies and Mr. Gross were engaged in equivalent activities (a debatable notion in itself).

Worse, it is the position of hardline Members of Congress that the U.S. should not negotiate with Cuba to obtain his release because Cuba is listed as a state-sponsor of terror (see above).

While his government offers pat explanations for what it won’t do to affect his release, Mr. Gross was plain-spoken in telling his attorney darkly, “His 65th birthday, which occurs on May 2, will be the last birthday that he celebrates in Havana.”

Deputy Attorney General James Cole, explaining the administration’s commutation policy, wrote, “It is important to remember that commutations are not pardons. They are not exonerations. They are not an expression of forgiveness.” He could have been writing the script for a Presidential determination to free the Cuban spies in exchange for Alan Gross.

The President will be hard to move on this exercise of his executive authority.  But, make no mistake; an action by the President to approve commutations for the remaining Cuban Five prisoners would not just enable Mr. Gross to celebrate his 66th birthday at home, but free his administration to pursue more effectively all of his Cuba policy goals.

The big enchilada is Helms-Burton. Our final point, though it might be hard to imagine, is that the President should be honing the argument for reclaiming the authority of his office to recognize Cuba, an authority that was seemingly taken away by passage of the Helms-Burton law.

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it will consider a case that bears directly on this point. It concerns a law enacted by Congress that requires the State Department to treat Jerusalem as the capital of Israel for the purposes of issuing passports.  At stake is the larger constitutional principle of whether the President has the exclusive right to recognize the sovereignty of another country.

The U.S. Court of Appeals sides with presidential power and against the Congress in a decision it issued last year.   Its decision can be read in its entirety here.  But, the conclusion by the Court is unmistakable:

“Having reviewed the Constitution’s text and structure, Supreme Court precedent and longstanding post-ratification history, we conclude that the President exclusively holds the power to determine whether to recognize a foreign sovereign.”

Should the Supreme Court affirm the appellate court ruling, its decision will loosen the grip of Congress on the core issue of Cuba policy – whether the U.S. will shift its focus from overthrowing the Castro government to letting Cubans decide their own future by themselves.

Letting the Cubans lead, rather than forcing them to tweet, would be a proud moment for the President, unless he prefers hearing the tweet of the hummingbird that brought him to 404.

Interested in traveling to Cuba? Travel with CDA!

Since 2001, the Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA) has been organizing delegations of travelers to visit Cuba to experience the island first-hand.

These trips, which we primarily offer to Members of Congress and various groups of policy experts, provide a truly unique experience, introducing travelers to our diverse range of contacts and friends, including artists, academics, entrepreneurs, musicians, journalists, and Cubans from all walks of life.

Right now, CDA is organizing a people-to-people delegation which will travel from June 1st to the 6th.  There are just a few spaces left, and we are hoping that readers of our news blast would like to fill them! If you are interested in seeing Cuba first-hand, please email Vivian Ramos at vivian@democracyinamericas.org ASAP.

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Jamming Bridges, Burning Bridges: What is it with politicians from New Jersey?

January 17, 2014

Aren’t there enough reasons to junk our Cold War-era policy toward Cuba?

You’d think so.  The policy doesn’t work.  It hurts the Cuban people.  It infringes on the liberties of Americans barred from visiting the island or doing business there.  It stops world-class Cuban pharmaceuticals from reaching patients here who need them.  It emboldens hardliners in Cuba to slow down their government’s economic reforms.  It boomerangs against the United States in Latin America.  It isolates the U.S. internationally.  It stops our government from negotiating for the release of the imprisoned USAID subcontractor Alan Gross.

The list goes on.  Each rationale for replacing the policy is powerful by itself.  But if you put them together, even after you add President Obama’s reasonable reforms on travel and remittances and negotiating with Cuba on matters like migration, the essence of the policy – harsh sanctions and diplomatic isolation – remains in place…undisturbed, seemingly impervious to knowledge and reason.

Is there nothing that will cause the executive branch to do needs to be done?  Is there no principle or no new fact, no new argument that will spur them to action?

Anything?  Anyone?

Two astute observers of national security, Yochi Dreazen and John Hudson, may have solved the puzzle.  Follow their logic.

In Pennsylvania Avenue’s Cold War, they depict a White House and U.S. State Department striving to salvage a “once-in-a-generation opportunity to keep Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons,” an agreement put at risk by the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Bob Menendez, a member of the president’s political party, and the senior Senator from the State of New Jersey.

By introducing legislation (which has bipartisan support in the Senate) that will scuttle their diplomatic solution, Menendez, as the White House sees it, is dragging the U.S. perilously close to starting a war with Iran.

“The lobbying campaign against Menendez’s bill – which would impose expansive new sanctions on Iran if the current nuclear negotiations fail – highlights his surprising emergence as one of the White House’s leading congressional adversaries (on a number of Obama priorities, including Cuba).”

Dreazen and Hudson write that “Menendez’s hard-line positions on the Cuban issue could leave him vulnerable to White House retaliation,” and suggest “the administration could decide to punish Menendez for his support of the Iran sanctions bill” by making a series of overdue reforms in Cuba policy, such as opening the island to more travel by Americans or strengthening bilateral relations.

“If I’m president and I want to stick it to Menendez,” a Congressional aide says, “I would take it out on his Cuba policy.”

For burning bridges with the President on Iran, could the White House send some payback in Menendez’s direction by making progress on Cuba?

Yes it could.

Of course, they wouldn’t call it retaliation.  They wouldn’t have to; there are ample justifications to reform the policy on the merits.

They could point to last year’s travel reforms implemented by Raúl Castro’s government that have already enabled 185,000 Cubans to travel abroad in the last year alone.

They could highlight the decisions being taken now by the European Union that put normalizing relations with Cuba toward the center of its foreign policy agenda.

They could acknowledge the need for bilateral cooperation on matters like the environment by highlighting Cuba’s decision to resume drilling for oil in the Gulf of Mexico in 2015.

They could side with scores of his Senate colleagues who wrote President Obama that Alan Gross needs to be returned home, and he should “take whatever steps are in the national interest” to negotiate with Cuba for his release.

Foreign policy expert Steve Clemons has written about Bob Menendez and his efforts to thwart reasonable reforms on Cuba since 2007.  He argued recently that the senior Senator from New Jersey had become the Democrats’ Jesse Helms for his broader role as an obstacle to change from his perch on Senate Foreign Relations.  Clemons has wisely focused on how reforming Cuba policy would have strategic echoes benefiting the United States across Latin America and the world.

He and others make these arguments because, in the Obama era, substance matters.  The nuts and bolts of politics are known to be foreign to them; so much so, Politico reports, when Senators were invited to relax with the President at the White House and they read “cocktails” on the invitation, they thought they saw a misprint.

If even schmoozing seems like a remote concept is action on Cuba even conceivable as a message to Menendez on Iran?  We don’t know.  But, this could be even more exciting than Governor Christie stopping traffic on the George Washington Bridge.

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