End It! What the NY Times and UN say about the US Embargo

October 17, 2014

In its lead editorial on Sunday, “Obama Should End the Embargo on Cuba,” the New York Times reignited the debate on Cuba by calling for the U.S. embargo to be lifted to serve the national interest and provide President Obama with a foreign policy legacy worthy of the name.

In the News Blast below, we report on what the editorial said and what happened after the editorial board said it.

But here, we discuss the October 28th vote in the UN General Assembly on condemning U.S. sanctions against Cuba, and how the embargo complicates our relations with Cuba, our region, and the broader world. We do so having just obtained the Secretary General’s report on the impact of the U.S. embargo on UN member states and institutions that was compiled this summer.

To paraphrase Lincoln, when the General Assembly takes up the Cuba resolution for the 23rd consecutive year, we know “the world will little note, nor long remember” what the UN does. This resolution has been approved every year since 1991. The outcome is hardly in doubt.

In 2013, the resolution carried in the General Assembly by a margin of 188 to 2 with three abstentions. This year, the sole suspense remaining is whether there is any country left – among the ranks of U.S. supporters (Israel) or our agnostics from the Pacific (the Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, and Palau) – who will defect from our side.

This drama offers little suspense for the UN press corps (see their forthcoming articles with the “yawn” emoticon). Yet, it leaves open questions about President Obama’s foreign policy and, as the Times argued, his legacy, that only he can answer.

In September, as President Obama challenged the world community in his General Assembly Address to confront Russia over Ukraine’s sovereignty, confront Ebola to stop the spread of the disease, and confront terrorism without inciting a clash of civilizations, what did he see?

However much he heard their applause –there was applause aplenty – the President was staring at heads of government and state utterly opposed to his policy toward Cuba.

In fact, this coalition of the unwilling extends from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe; from the Pope to Putin; from China to India, the world’s most populous countries to its most prosperous economies in the EU, Japan and South Korea; and all the way to our regional allies Brazil, Colombia, Chile, El Salvador, and Mexico.

Yes, at least 188 UN members oppose us; but, more than the numbers, it is the words that our allies and adversaries use about us that illustrate how much the embargo turns the world against us.

Listen to just some of the language submitted by member states to the Secretary General’s report on why they oppose the embargo; it tracks what President Obama said to the General Assembly last month to rally the world to his side so closely that it’s eerie.

In defending Ukraine against Russia, the President said: “We believe that right makes might –that bigger nations should not be able to bully smaller ones, and that people should be able to choose their own future.”

In the UN report, El Salvador criticized our Cuba policy saying, “Respect for a people’s freedom to determine its own history can never be disputed.”

While the President said, “Too often, we have failed to enforce international norms when it’s inconvenient to do so,” Egypt said the embargo is “morally unjustifiable and legally indefensible, and runs counter to the norms of international law.”

Where Obama said, “on issue after issue, we cannot rely on a rule book written for a different century,” Russia wrote, “the embargo imposed by the United States against Cuba is counterproductive and a remnant of the cold war.”

If he picked up a copy of the UN report, the President could read how the embargo impairs Cuba’s ability to treat children with heart disease and leukemia, stops Cuba from purchasing vaccines from the U.S. that protect its livestock against viruses and its people against food insecurity, and disrupts legal, two-way trade, even in the middle of financial transactions, as passwords disappear from back office banking operations and Cuba’s letters of credit are rejected by institutions which honor them from everyone else.

If he read the Secretary General’s report, the President would see Vietnam, which ended its state of war with America through dialogue and negotiation, calling on the U.S. and Cuba to settle our differences “through dialogue and negotiation,” with mutual respect “for each other’s independence and sovereignty.”

Then, he could sit in the Oval Office and think about whether he wants to leave the White House in 2017 with the embargo he inherited from John F. Kennedy virtually intact; having failed in its purpose to overthrow Cuba’s government, but having damaged everyday Cubans and isolated the U.S. from the island and the region.

He might also think about how his next challenge to the world will be received, after the world’s challenges to the Bush, Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations to drop the embargo have been disregarded over the course of 23 years.

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LASA Edition: The US Needs a Cuba Policy Worthy of Its Ideals

May 23, 2014

Days before we arrived in Chicago for the Congress of the Latin America Studies Association, the New York Times ran an obituary for William Worthy, who died earlier this month at age 92.

Worthy, a path-breaking African-American journalist, interviewed Fidel Castro and filed stories on Cuba’s race relations, traveling to Cuba only with a birth certificate for identification. Upon his return, he was prosecuted for entering the U.S. without a passport, convicted, and sentenced to prison.

He won his appeal, as the Times explained, on the grounds that “the lack of a passport was insufficient ground to bar a citizen from re-entering the country.”

Five decades later, questions around Cuba and the free exchange of ideas continue to force distance between the U.S. government and our country’s ideals.

***

When LASA meets in the United States, it struggles to get visas for all of the Cuban academics invited to attend.

In prior years, under Republican and Democratic administrations, visa denials put a damper on Cuban participation; at times, the politics of exclusion were so extreme, LASA moved the conference elsewhere in the region rather than bring its scholars and intellectual dynamism to our shores.

Although the U.S. deserves credit for granting visas this year to the great number of Cubans who applied, four important intellectuals did not get in.  Their absence affects us directly.  Sitting as we did to hear a panel Thursday morning titled “Talking with Cuba: The Search for U.S.-Cuban Accommodation,” where scholars reviewed the history and the lessons from fifty-plus years of bilateral negotiations, we missed hearing Dr. Soraya Castro’s unique perspective.

Saturday, when our panel discusses economic reform and its impact on women, the audience won’t get to hear from Daybel Pañellas, a psychologist at the University of Havana.  She is helping us assemble an analysis of scholarly literature on reform and women. Also excluded were our friend, Rafael Hernández, editor of Temas, a Cuban social science magazine, and Omar Everleny Pérez, a remarkably candid economist from the University of Havana.

These academics – hardly threats to U.S. national security – could have brought their own intellectual energy and credibility to this year’s Congress; and we will never know why our government chose to make them non-combatants in LASA’s spirited exchange of ideas.

***

To be sure, the tolerance for dissenting views in our country has grown substantially since William Worthy was arrested after returning from Cuba.

This week, for example, an astonishingly diverse roster of former U.S. officials, some who once held pretty strong pro-sanctions views, signed a letter to President Obama offering their support for policies to increase the number of U.S. travelers to Cuba and boost the flow of capital to entrepreneurs in Cuba’s private sector.

While we favor more far-reaching reforms, and would’ve written a different letter, it notably attracted John Negroponte, the former Director of National Intelligence; Andres Fanjul, co-owner of sugarcane producer Fanjul Corp.; Michael Parmly and Vicki Huddleston, former heads of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana; former Clinton and Obama Cabinet Secretaries like Bruce Babbitt, Ken Salazar and Hilda Solis; as well as former Rep. Jane Harman, former EPA Director Carol Browner, and others to a clear statement favoring real changes in U.S. policy.

A similar shift can be seen among the Cuban diaspora in the U.S.  Sure, there are holdouts – heard in the shrill denunciations of the letter to the president and the debut of #CubaNow – but a new school of thought has clearly taken root where the old held sway.

As the BBC observed this week, “times are changing in Little Havana.  To be Cuban American in Miami once meant supporting the embargo, almost as an article of identity and faith. That is no longer the case.”  There was a similar finding in a poll this year by the Atlantic Council, which found even higher support for better relations with Cuba in Florida than it found nationally.  This change in sentiment can also be found among the men and women who met in Washington recently who came here in the Pedro Pan airlift decades ago.

At the center of both the Cuban-American community and the foreign policy establishment, we see evidence of how embracing a real debate and new ideas can drive a shift toward reform.

***

In “The Ballad of William Worthy,” the folksinger Phil Ochs captured well the conflict between how the U.S. behaves and the ideas it likes to profess:

William Worthy isn’t worthy to enter our door.
Went down to Cuba, he’s not American anymore.
But somehow it is strange to hear the State Department say,
You are living in the free world, in the free world you must stay.

If the Obama Administration wanted to reconcile its actions with our values, sitting down with Cuba – acknowledging its sovereignty as a prelude to discussing our differences directly – would be a good way to begin.

Anyhow, that’s part of what the scholars on the “Talking with Cuba” panel discussed on Thursday. Too bad everyone wasn’t around to hear them.

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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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From the Bay of Pigs to the Bay of Tweets

April 18, 2014

Yesterday, The John F. Kennedy Library posted a “JFK in History” piece to mark the 53rd anniversary of what it called “a botched invasion at the Bay of Pigs on the south coast of Cuba.”

The invasion was a CIA covert operation with the goal of overthrowing the Castro government.  Kennedy was determined to conceal U.S. support for the operation and, as the entry explains, the “landing point at the Bay of Pigs was part of the deception.”  In the days before April 17th, the operation was exposed, American support for the invasion was revealed, and the small army composed largely of Cuban exiles was defeated.

It is no accident of history that ZunZuneo, the faux “Cuban Twitter” program revealed this month by the Associated Press, has been ridiculed in headlines as “The Bay of Tweets.”  Fifty-three years later, the United States is still engaged in activities to overthrow Cuba’s government, and still misusing the dark arts of government secrecy and deniability to obscure them, with consequences so familiar, it is as if a new generation of public officials has arrived at positions of power ignorant of their own country’s history.

In the 1970s, The Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, led by Senator Frank Church, was formed to review a series of efforts to overthrow foreign governments, spy on U.S. citizens, and conceal those activities from the Congress and the American people.  Time and again, the Committee invoked the Bay of Pigs as evidence of the damage that is inflicted on our national security and the U.S. system by excessive reliance on secrecy.

As the Committee wrote in its final report:

“The task of democratic government is to reconcile conflicting values…Reliance on covert action has been excessive because it offers a secret shortcut around the democratic process.  This shortcut has led to questionable foreign involvements and unacceptable acts…Finally, secrecy has been a tragic conceit.  Inevitably, the truth prevails, and policies pursued on the premise that they could be plausibly denied, in the end damage America’s reputation and the faith of her people in their government.”  Final Report, Page 16.

Following the report, Congress established a more formal system of oversight over intelligence activities and strengthened the legal requirements for the White House and executive branch agencies to report intelligence activities and covert actions.

Fast forward from the Bay of Pigs and the Church Committee to ZunZuneo, and you can see why some reporters are following the scandal so closely and why experts like Professor Bill LeoGrande have directly challenged repeated government denials that the program was covert:

“USAID’s ZunZuneo program meets the two key definitional attributes of a covert action: it was intended to influence Cuban politics, and the U.S. government’s role was intentionally hidden.”

In the earlier stages of the story, USAID flatly denied that ZunZuneo had any intent to influence Cuba’s politics.  As the AP reported, when Senator Patrick Leahy asked administrator Rajiv Shah whether its goal was to “influence political conditions abroad” or “to encourage popular opposition to the Cuban government,” Shah replied “No, that is not correct.”

Once AP published patently political text messages from ZunZuneo that contradicted Dr. Shah’s testimony, the State Department started ducking questions at its daily briefing from reporters asking for an inventory of the text messages.

Indeed, on April 9April 11April 14, and April 17, when reporters asked questions like “How goes the USAID review of these allegedly political text messages?,” the answer from the State Department has been Nothing new to report today,” “I would encourage you to check in with my colleagues at USAID,” and, “I don’t have any updates from here. I know they’re looking into it.”

Such evasions can’t really work when the facts point so strongly to covert actions that should have been reported to the Congress.  As Peter Kornbluh explained in an interview to Jeremy Bigwood:  “Zunzuneo had all the components of a classic covert action: shell companies, off-shore bank accounts, managerial cutouts, multinational locations, the goal of regime change, and, of course, the hidden hand of the United States government.”

Therefore, as Bill LeoGrande writes, “under the law (50 U.S. Code § 3093 (a)), [it] required a presidential finding and notification of the Congressional intelligence committees. Those obligations do not appear to have been met.”

And so we have our Bay of Tweets: another covert action, another effort to conceal the truth from the American people, another deceit in our endless mission to bring democracy to Cuba.

But, more than lies lie in the balance.  As Gary Hart, a member of the Church Committee, wrote a few years ago:

“A democracy that violates the rights and privacy of its citizens and conceals its activities from them edges dangerously near something other than a democracy.  The most radical of our founders, Thomas Jefferson, held that the best guarantor of the American republic was the good judgment and common sense of the American people, a people fully informed of the activities of its government on their behalf.”

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On Mother’s Day in Havana and Washington

May 11, 2012

In the U.S., Mother’s Day is a hallmark of our spring calendar, so we wanted to wish a happy holiday to every mother who reads and enjoys the weekly blast.

As you will read below, the organization called Save the Children has released its annual Mothers Index Rating and has once again listed Cuba as the best country in Latin America for mothers.

This will undoubtedly excite an exaggerated reaction from those who can’t stand seeing Cuba presented in a normal or flattering light.

After the New York Times published its piece earlier this month titled “Cuba May Be the Most Feminist Country in Latin America,” the heavy armor was rolled out.  While reasonable men and women of good will disagree about life and living conditions in Cuba, a discussion of the facts simply couldn’t be allowed to stand.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen called women “the biggest victims of the Cuban regime,” the author and others holding this view were labeled as apologists, the perspective called “unspeakable,” the New York Times didn’t just publish the article, it ‘squealed,’ etc.

One can only imagine the hail storm that awaits Save the Children.

But this week the hardliners didn’t own the monopoly on absurdity.   Special credit was earned by the U.S. State Department which publicly rejected an offer by Cuba to negotiate with the United States on a broad range of issues, including the Alan Gross case.

Mr. Gross, imprisoned in Cuba since December 2009, for his work in a USAID-funded regime change program, and sentenced to 15 years in prison, pleaded for a brief release to visit his mother, aged ninety, who is suffering from cancer – a Mother’s Day gift they could both enjoy – and made his case in a telephone interview with CNN.

Reacting to the interview, Josefina Vidal, a top Cuban Foreign Ministry official, said that while Cuba was ready to engage in a dialogue with the U.S. on Mr. Gross’s case, Havana wanted “to sit down at the negotiating table with Washington to discuss all outstanding issues in an effort to establish normal relations,” according to CBS News.

Rather than seizing the initiative, the State Department “reacted sharply,” saying Vidal’s statement confirmed its belief that Mr. Gross is a hostage and there is no justification for his continued imprisonment.

Meanwhile, the New York Times reported that the Obama administration is negotiating with the Taliban on a prisoner exchange that could free an American soldier held hostage in Afghanistan.

Leaving us to wonder what principle is at stake when U.S. decides who to talk to about what.

Our policy of not talking directly to Cuba on subjects core to the national interest, such as protecting our shared environment against an oil spill, or as central to our humanitarian interests as freeing a pawn in our Cold War efforts to topple the Cuban government, both of which we discuss below, might be good politics in some precincts, but it’s a substantial and damaging  failure to communicate.

Our mothers never would approve of that.

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