Putin in Cuba, Groundhog Day in America

July 11, 2014

As Russian President Vladimir Putin visits Havana, and builds closer ties with Cuba’s senior leadership, it begs the question, “Haven’t we seen this movie before?”

Our six-decade stalemate with Cuba started at the height of the Cold War.  Cuba established formal diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union on May 8, 1960.  Washington, in turn, severed ties with Havana on January 3, 1961. By the time Vladimir Putin was a ten-year-old and Barack Obama was an infant, we had already lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis, the establishment of the Lourdes signals intelligence center near Havana, and more, which brought the heat of the Cold War within a hundred miles of our shores.

Back then, the Eisenhower and Kennedy Administrations decided it just would not do to have what was called a “Soviet puppet” in what some still call our “backyard.”  President Kennedy, as Cuba scholar Daniel Erikson wrote, reinterpreted the Monroe Doctrine “to support American efforts to contain the expansion of Soviet influence into the hemisphere.”

From the Bay of Pigs invasion to diplomatic isolation to the tightest economic sanctions imposed on Cuba, driving the Soviets out and punishing the Cubans for inviting them in has been what U.S. policy was all about.  This was matched, year after year, by Cuba’s resolute resistance to whatever wallops Washington delivered, sustained for a decade by Soviet subsidies.

The fall of the Berlin Wall led, ultimately, to the collapse of Cuba’s economy.  When the Soviet Union broke-up in 1991, Cuba lost annual assistance estimated at approximately $4.5 billion. Its economy contracted by 35% more or less overnight.  Public transport essentially ground to a halt.  Calorie consumption in the average Cuban’s diet fell 30%.  Export earnings fell 80%.  By January 1, 1992, when the Soviets cut off all military and economic assistance to Cuba, the allies had gone through a nasty break-up.

This was the moment to declare victory. With Russia dislodged from Cuba, the U.S. could have reinvigorated diplomacy and reached a modus vivendi with Cuba.  The objectives of our Cold War era policy having been satisfied, we could have even brought some long overdue tranquility to our relationships in Latin America.

Instead, U.S. policymakers decided to try and finish the job, passing the Cuba Democracy Act, which tightened the embargo screws even further, with the expectation that Cuba’s economic travails would do Cuba’s government in. It could have been called “The Never Miss an Opportunity to Miss an Opportunity Act of 1992.”

What happened?  Well, Cuba’s government didn’t fall under the weight of the U.S. embargo.  Raúl and Fidel Castro organized a peaceful transition of power. Our insistence on shutting Cuba out of regional forums like the OAS backfired on us.  Now, a little more than two decades later, Russia is back.

Without apparent irony, Yuri Ushakov, a presidential aide, told a reporter that the Kremlin considers Cuba to be “one of Russia’s ancient partners in Latin America.”  To advance that partnership, even before President Putin landed on Cuban soil, Russia agreed to write off about $32 billion in debt Cuba owed to the Soviet Union.

This is a big deal.  The Voice of Russia news service references one analyst, Caroline Kennedy (no, we’re not kidding), Head of the School of Politics, Philosophy, and International Studies at the University of Hull, as it observed, “the writing-off of the historic debt is about trying to reinvigorate a relationship that had fallen into abeyance in the 1990s – something Putin himself has said that he regrets in recent speeches.”

In addition to writing off Cuba’s debt, Russia has been written into Cuba’s strategy for recovering oil from the vast offshore reserves it has sought to exploit in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico since the 1990s.  As Bloomberg reports, during Putin’s visit, two Russian state oil producers “plan to sign an agreement with Cuban company Cupet SA to carry out joint operations in Cuba’s offshore areas.”

It might interest you to know that on Putin’s last trip to Cuba fourteen years ago, he pulled the plug on the Lourdes signal intelligence center as his personal affirmation that the Cold War was over, a gesture he believed was snubbed and, as Progreso Weekly reported, he also reviewed the status of Cuba’s backlogged debt payments for previously acquired Soviet loans.

We have seen this movie before.  It’s called “Groundhog Day.”  In that film, history on February 2nd repeats itself day after day until our love-smitten TV weatherman sets aside his self-destructive behavior and ends the tragic time loop by repairing his relationships and doing right in the world.   The cold of winter gives way, finally, to spring.

“Keep in mind that when Castro came to power,” President Obama said last year in Miami, “I was just born. So the notion that the same policies that we put in place in 1961 would somehow still be as effective as they are today in the age of the Internet and Google and world travel doesn’t make sense.”

Whether it’s inviting Cuba to join the Summit of the Americas, engaging with Cuba directly to protect the coast of Florida from the potential risk posed by a Ruso-Cuban drilling accident, or using his ample executive authority to go bolder and deeper, surely President Obama can summon the imagination and courage, not to drive Russia out, but to get our country back in the game.

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A July 4th Story About Democracy Promotion

July 5, 2013

A short time back, Digital Diplomacy was all the rage.  Personified by Jared Cohen and Alec Ross, who married social media to democracy promotion at the State Department, the U.S. government made a costly and public commitment to modernizing its tools of diplomacy.

Those were heady days for cyber-democrats, and the U.S. government wasn’t shy about its role in promoting change.  “As American officials and others look back at the uprisings of the Arab Spring, they are seeing that the United States’ democracy-building campaigns played a bigger role in fomenting protests than was previously known, with key leaders of the movements having been trained by the Americans in campaigning, organizing through new media tools and monitoring elections.”

Eric Schmidt, then CEO at Google, who brought Cohen and Ross to the company’s headquarters in Mountain View for a Q+A session with dozens of employees, asked them “Is it like calling up all the ambassadors and saying, Please use Facebook, Twitter, and Google?”

It wasn’t that easy.  The ideas behind so-called 21st Century statecraft turned out to be harder to implement than conceive.  Both men have since left the State Department.  Mr. Cohen got a job at Google.  Mr. Ross is writing a book and serving as a corporate consultant.  But, the structure they left behind may not be doing all that well.

If you saw the headline, State Department spent $630G to boost Facebook ‘likes,’ report says, you know what we’re talking about.  In a report recently made public, the Office of the Inspector General for the U.S. Department of State and the Broadcasting Board of Governors found that the Department spent $630,000 boosting its likes on Facebook, “artificially increasing apparent popularity of the Bureau’s English-language Facebook page from 100,000 likes to 2 million.”

The word “artificially” was well-chosen.  The report also found that the money produced little increase in engagement.  Members of the larger audience weren’t likely to be active politically. The Department didn’t understand how Facebook managed its news feeds, and it was poorly organized to make use of the effort.  The Inspector General found such pervasive problems that the report required over 80 recommendations for fixes.

The report showed a Department more interested in boosting its numbers – to measure just how energetically it was promoting democracy and using social media in nations overseas – than in thinking about or organizing what it was doing.  This had a familiar ring to us.

We mentioned the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) before, when we learned about its contract with Washington Software, Inc. to build up its social media effort in Cuba.  According to documents disgorged by Tracey Eaton, the investigative journalist with whom we are working, “the BBG paid Washington Software $14,474 for” – get this – “361,873 text messages sent to cell phones in Cuba during the month of October 2011” alone.

The numbers sound robust; just like moving up the State Department’s numbers on Facebook.  But, the Cuba programs are shrouded in secrecy, and U.S. taxpayers have no idea what the SMS messages said, to whom they were sent, or what the purposes of the messages were.

Apparently, we must simply trust Carlos García-Pérez, the director of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, who is certain these efforts are successful.  “With these new initiatives we are enhancing the way that people in Cuba can share information,” he said in comments reported by the Miami Herald.

We’re not so sure.  Earlier this spring, Mr. Eaton reported that the BBG has spent more than half-a-million dollars since 2005 to buy TV and Radio Martí the rights to broadcast Major League Baseball games for the Cuban audience, even though the stations are jammed by Cuba’s government.

Last Sunday, the Associated Press reported that Cuba broadcast a major league game on state television.  It was stripped of commercial advertising, neither of the teams involved fielded any Cuban players, and the game was two-months old.  Not surprisingly, Cubans who watched didn’t think much of it.

If the Martís are broadcasting the real thing live, why did Cuba need to run a May 2nd game on June 30th?  Because no one in Cuba hears them.  So why was the BBG bragging on July 2nd about its contract with Major League Baseball?  Because it doesn’t think that anyone here knows any better, and they are right.

As events unfolded in Egypt this week, we were reminded that democracy promotion is a tricky, unpredictable thing.  It’s inherently intrusive, as one scholar of the subject wrote recently, and causes pushback in the countries where we’re accused of meddling.

In Cuba, where these activities are illegal, they endanger the citizens who come in contact with them and put the personnel who carry them out at great risk.  In the U.S., because they are carried out in secret, most U.S. taxpayers are completely in the dark about what their government is doing, which hardly seems democratic at all.

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