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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Snapchat, ZunZuneo, and Cuba as an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

April 4, 2014

Living as we do in the “Snapchat” – or even ZunZuneo – era, where the present can disappear or be buried by new material in 1-10 seconds, history may not stand a chance.  This is not a new phenomenon.  In 1999, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni did a survey which revealed that seniors at 55 leading colleges and universities were more familiar with Snoop Dogg (98%) than with James Madison’s role in writing the U.S. Constitution (23%).  Even if Snoop’s numbers have drooped in the intervening fifteen years, it’s hard to imagine that Madison’s have seen much of a revival.  If the present disappears in an instant, what chance does history have?

Forgive us, then, our faith.

A couple months back, we at the Center for Democracy in the Americas were contacted by Louis A. Pérez, Jr., asking if we might be interested in publishing his article “Cuba as an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.”  Dr. Pérez is the J. Carlyle Sitterson Professor of History and Director of the Institute for the Studies of the Americas at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and editor of Cuban Journal. His research and award-winning publications examine the history and identity of the nineteenth and twentieth century Caribbean, with a special focus on Cuba.

We readily agreed.

In “Cuba as an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder,” Dr. Pérez offers a powerful case that this country’s fixation with determining Cuba’s destiny did not originate with the Castro Revolution of 1959.  Instead, it began much earlier, dating back to America’s preoccupation with its own manifest destiny, starting with the acquisitions of Louisiana and Florida, three centuries ago.

In his article, you will hear the ringing voices of U.S. statesmen and figures nearly lost to history.  These include: John Adams, the second president of the United States, who called Cuba “An object of transcendent importance to the political and commercial interests of our Union.”  His son, John Quincy Adams who, as Secretary of State, said Cuba was a “natural appendage” of the United States.  John Clayton, Secretary of State under President Zachary Taylor, who promised the “whole power of the United States would be employed to prevent . . . Cuba from passing into other hands.” Senator Robert Toombs, the secessionist Senator, who declared “I know of no portion of the earth that is now so important to the United States of America as the Island of Cuba is.” And President James Buchanan, who said breathlessly, “We must have Cuba. We can’t do without Cuba.”

To them and others, making Cuba an American possession was a strategic imperative and a psychological obsession.

With this chorus from the 19th Century, the voices we hear of statesmen and political figures in our own era now come across with greater fidelity.  The Cold Warriors of the past like CIA Director John McCone -“In my opinion, Cuba was the key to all of Latin America; if Cuba succeeds, we can expect most of Latin America to fall” – as well as his heirs of today, who refer to efforts by President Obama to relax travel restrictions as “appeasement.”

This leaves us, as Dr. Pérez writes, with a Cuba policy that is an “anomaly of singular distinction: more than 50 years of political isolation and economic sanctions, longer than the U.S. refusal to recognize the Soviet Union, longer than the hiatus of normal relations with China, longer than it took to reconcile with post-war Vietnam. Cuba has been under U. S. sanctions for almost half its national existence as an independent republic.”

History does have a powerful claim on this policy; a claim that long precedes the emergence of Fidel Castro and the success of the Cuban Revolution. To make this assertion is not to disenfranchise the claims of Cuban Americans or their very real grievances; no, it is to recognize that what happens between the United States and Cuba affects and implicates all of us.

Understanding the history may not actually make changing the policy any easier.  After all, the resilience of this failed, fifty year-old policy springs from what the hardliners have built around it – the network of political action committees, fraternal organizations, relationships, elections, appointments, websites and more -to keep it in place for them to control no matter what the rest of us may think or want for the future.

Yet, we have this abiding faith that it will be easier for policy makers to find the way forward if they better appreciate how we arrived at this place where we’ve been stuck.

We “Snapchat” Americans may not remember or know what to do with this history upon being presented with it.  But, there’s one thing we can promise you: the Cubans have never forgotten.

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Let the ends justify the means

March 7, 2014

“That is an absolute lie.”

This is what Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart told the New York Times, after its correspondent, Damien Cave said “clearly a majority” of the American public supports a change in policy in Cuba.

Except it’s not a lie. The American public made up its mind years ago that the embargo ought to go. The results Mr. Díaz-Balart questioned from last month’s Atlantic Council poll weren’t off the mark; their results track just what Florida International University found in its 2011 poll and numerous others have, before and since.

Rep. Díaz-Balart disparaged the Council’s survey just as he did in February, using the same language Elliot Abrams used  on Valentine’s Day; how Robin Wapner described the poll in the Los Angeles Times today. They call it a “push poll.”

Except, it wasn’t.  Why would Glen Bolger, the highly-respected Republican pollster of Public Opinion Strategies — who’s worked for the Florida Republican Party, Governor Jeb Bush, the Florida Chamber of Commerce, and the Wall Street Journal — produce a survey that rattled the embargo establishment and relied on what experts call  “an unethical political campaign technique… masquerading as legitimate political polling.” Why would he do that? [Hint:  he didn’t.]

Then there’s the case of Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, who delivered a speech on the Senate floor after visiting  Cuba for a trip that examined “the strengths and weaknesses of Cuba’s public health system.”  This was not Harkin’s first trip to the island; he first visited Guantánamo as an active duty Navy jet pilot during Vietnam, flying missions in support of U-2 planes that spied on Cuba.

This was too much for Senator Marco Rubio (neither a veteran nor a visitor to Cuba), who gave a floor speech that  “ripped” Harkin, “destroyed” Harkin, “blasted” Harkin, and “unloaded” on Harkin, as his blogosphere fans said, for using what Rubio called unreliable statistics provided by Cuba’s government to admire the country’s infant mortality rate.

Except, Harkin was right.  There are many statistics used to measure Cuba’s health system that are accepted globally — for example, to demonstrate that Cuba has fulfilled the primary education, gender equality, and child mortality Millennium Development Goals, or to gauge Cuba’s progress in achieving national literacy, expanding life expectancy, and reducing infant mortality, as the World Economic Forum has done.  This doesn’t mean the figures should not be debated, they should; but it’s hard to dismiss them outright.

Next, consider Cuba’s economic reforms.  More than ten percent of state jobs — close to 600,000 thousands positions — have been eliminated since 2009.   Estimates vary, but at least 450,000 Cubans can now work in private sector jobs because of liberalizations championed by President Raúl Castro.  This is a big change for Cuba, as we reported in Cuba’s New Resolve, and published this year on what the reforms mean for Cuban women.

We also hosted five Cuban nationals on a trip to the U.S.  last year, who explained to the Washington policy community how the ability to start a business, employ other Cubans, make more money, and take their own decisions gives them greater ownership over their lives.  Cuban-Americans in Florida sense that too; as the New York Times documented this week, “Some Who Fled Cuba Are Returning to Help,” they are sending investment capital, sharing business expertise, and promoting bilateral engagement – many after spending decades fighting the Castro government.

The naysayers about economic reform in Cuba are not the people making the trips to the island, but rather are the elected officials and embargo lobbyists who refuse to go, who won’t concede the Cuban economy is reforming, and who seek instead to maintain the embargo just as it is.  Time and again, when Damien Cave asked about the Cuban-Americans who are traveling to Cuba and helping the reforms along, Rep. Díaz-Balart answered his question with a defense of the embargo.

This is a classic confusion of ends and means.  Even if you support the embargo — we don’t, and we’re part of a large majority that even includes Yoani Sánchez hoping for its demise — what you presumably want is good things for Cuba’s people, not a perpetuation of the embargo for its own sake.  And yet, if economic reform produces more prosperity and choice, or if public opinion among Cuban-Americans has shifted and they want to achieve their vision of Cuba through different means, the response of the hardliners is attack, discredit, rip, blast, and unload.

This strikes us as wrong.  Democracies function better when they debate ideas rather than deny them.  Without accurate information, democratic politics becomes impossible.  If the embargo is more important than that, then what’s the point?

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Cuba’s Economic Reforms in the Human Dimension and 3-D

November 8, 2013

Five Cubans will visit Washington next week to talk about how their country’s economy is being transformed, and how their lives are being improved, disrupted or simply affected by the changes underway.

Four run small businesses; a fifth is a state employee.  Only one has ever traveled to the U.S.  All can visit our nation’s capital because Havana ended travel restrictions on Cubans this year, and because Washington gave them visas.  These visitors are:

  • Nidialys, who runs a car rental company, “Nostalgicar,” with her husband Julio.  Together, they have formed a fleet of self-employed drivers with pristine Chevrolets from the 1950s, who provide transportation services to tourists visiting the island.
  • Niuris is the owner of the successful paladar, Atelier, in Havana. The restaurant is run by Niuris and her siblings from their home, a former senator’s mansion.
  • Yamina owns and operates a party decorations company, “Decorazón”.  A mother of two, Yamina creates decorations, like balloon displays, party favors, and table centerpieces, for celebrations ranging from elegant weddings to children’s birthday parties. She also fills the role of event planner, contracting services such as cakes and clowns, for an almost entirely Cuban clientele.
  • Emilia works in human resources at an eye clinic in Havana. Having completed her education in the Soviet Union, Emilia, who previously worked as an accountant and an auditor, speaks Spanish, English, and Russian, and expresses great satisfaction with the opportunities she has received from the Cuban system.

At a forum to be held at George Washington University, and in private meetings with policy makers, they will discuss what the biggest changes in Cuba’s economic model since the dissolution of the Soviet Union mean to them.

What is taking place in Cuba is not change at the margin.  Since late 2010, more than 442,000 Cubans have obtained licenses to work at small businesses and cooperatives in newly-authorized categories of self-employment.  Cubans are leaving the certainty that comes with a state job, state wages, and state benefits, learning the joys and problems that accompany running a business and making more of their own decisions. They are living with the uncertainties that come with rules that evolve and change, as authorities decide how much and how fast to update the model.

The rules do change.  In this space, we wrote last week about decisions in Cuba to end its two currency system and to end the government’s monopoly on public restrooms, and about entrepreneurs who operate video salons and screen 3-D movies.  Just hours after we hit send, Cuba’s government moved to close the theaters, which had not been officially approved.

Our friends at Progreso Weekly quickly posted an analysis written by José Jasán Nieves Cárdenas, a Cuban journalist.  His topline “Yes, it IS an obvious step backward,” was just the beginning of a thoughtful reaction:  the decision will be unpopular in Cuba (especially among young people whose decisions to stay in Cuba are critical to the island’s future), it contradicted earlier government statements, and is likely to be disobeyed.  He might have added that this reversal is a reminder that reform needs to be encouraged; because, among Cuban decision makers, not everyone is a fan of reform.

In contrast, some hardliners responded not in sadness, at the loss of a valuable service for Cubans, but with glee because a “pro-Castro group,” their reference to us, had cited the 3-D theaters as evidence of reform, and their ability to operate had been taken away by Cuba’s government.

Let’s spend some time with that.  Whenever Cuba announces a significant reform, hardliners don’t acknowledge it, they denounce it.  Why?  To maintain U.S. economic sanctions as they currently exist, they feel duty-bound to argue that Cuba isn’t changing. Although, when you think about it, failure is hardly testimony for keeping a policy like the embargo when it doesn’t work.

We saw this when Cuba’s government ended travel restrictions on its people. Hardliners called it a plot. They said Cuba was just getting ready to “dump a new wave of refugees onto U.S. shores.” They continue to argue even today, November 8, that the travel reforms aren’t real.

You see, they operate under what Richard Feinberg calls “the old narrative” – that Fidel and Raúl Castro have to pass from the scene before any real change could occur – otherwise, if the reforms are actually producing more choices, more jobs, and the opportunity to earn more money for the Cuban people, why do we need their embargo?

For the hardliners, the suffering imposed by sanctions is an end unto itself, to be preserved no matter what happens in Cuba.

That’s why the visit by Nidialys, Julio, Niuris, Yamina, and Emilia to Washington is so important. For those of us who cannot see reform in 3-D, they are reform in its human dimension, a reminder that the process that has brought them to this point in Cuba should not be disparaged but encouraged by the United States.

This week, in Cuba news… Read the rest of this entry »


Adventures in Exceptionalism

October 25, 2013

We offer these thoughts a few days before the UN General Assembly votes on a resolution condemning the United States for the embargo against Cuba.

“For decades,” journalist Marc Frank reminds us in Cuban Revelations, “Cubans who left the island – especially for the United States – were considered traitors who were joining a foreign power’s attempts to overthrow the nation.”

In Cuba, this was the government’s rationale for restricting the liberties of all Cubans to leave and return to their country as they pleased.  But, a little more than two years ago, President Raúl Castro issued a strong signal that the weather was going to change.

Speaking before Cuba’s National Assembly, Castro said: “Today, the overwhelming number of Cubans are émigrés for economic reasons…What is a fact is that almost all of them maintain their love for the family and the homeland of their birth and, in different ways, demonstrate solidarity toward their compatriots.”

In January of this year, nearly all travel restrictions on Cubans were dismantled. Now, as we have noted previously, Cubans who want to travel to the U.S. face fewer restrictions than nearly all U.S. residents who want to travel to Cuba.  President Obama acted wisely to repeal the harsh restrictions his predecessor imposed on family travel in 2004. Now, the right of Cuban Americans to visit their families on the island is unlimited.  Upwards of 350,000 exercised that right just last year.

The president also reopened channels for people-to-people travel and, as we reported last week, non-Cuban American travel to Cuba has hit peak levels.  But, if you look at the numbers for 2012, you will see that the more than one million Canadians, more than 150,000 travelers from the U.K., and over one-hundred thousand tourists from Germany, Italy, and France exceeded the Americans (98,050) who got to visit Cuba, and none of them had to apply to their governments for a “license” in order to go.  We were the exception.

***

It is not new that the United States is criticized by friend and foe alike.  In October, however, the U.S. image has taken a pounding overseas; and, to be clear, this not a public relations problem.  The drumbeat got louder and more insistent over much larger issues.

Criticism of the U.S. spiked when the U.S. government was shut down, the nation’s credit rating was at risk, and Congress frightened bondholders and contractors with the threat that we would not pay our bills. China called for a “de-Americanized world.” A columnist in The Guardian wrote: “The rottenness of modern Washington makes outsiders gasp.”

Strong stuff, but nothing in comparison to the uproar caused by revelations that the growing global scandal over surveillance by the National Security Agency now encompassed the private communications of 35 world leaders.  This will multiply the backlash the U.S. already felt when Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff cancelled a state visit over reports of U.S. snooping in her country and her private office.

Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel, is especially incensed.  As USA Today reports, she told President Obama that “spying among friends cannot be,” there needs to be trust among allies and partners, and that “such trust now has to be built anew.”

Foreign Policy is reporting that Germany and Brazil are joining forces “to press for the adoption of a U.N. General Resolution that promotes the right of privacy on the Internet,” that would extend the coverage of Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to the online world.

This Article states “no one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his honor and reputation,” and that “everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.”

If the amendment happens what difference will make it?  The U.S. Senate waited sixteen years to adopt the covenant and, when it did so, it added fourteen reservations, understandings, and declarations that so denuded its force that scholars said the U.S. had perpetrated a fraud on the global community.

Two weeks ago, the United States was among 15 member nations scheduled to have their human rights records reviewed by a UN committee in Geneva, and NSA spying was already “slated for discussion.”  But, the U.N. Human Rights Committee cancelled the U.S. review and rescheduled it for March 2014.

“The USA highlights its regret at having to make such a request, which is due to the ongoing government shutdown,” the committee said.  Fourteen other countries were reviewed.  For the U.S., they had to make an exception.

***

On October 29th, when the General Assembly votes on its 22nd resolution to condemn the U.S. embargo on Cuba, the U.S. will again stand virtually alone in asserting the rightness of our views.  In President Obama’s first term, Ambassador Ronald Godard argued that the U.N. had no business even debating the question, because the U.S. had a “sovereign right” to punish Cuba for its political system as part of its bilateral policies.  “Butt out;” he seemed to say, “this is America’s right to do as it pleases.”

This idea, grounded in the notion of American exceptionalism, so pervasive in U.S. foreign policy, combines our faith in the “rightness of our cause” with our overwhelming power.

Recent events demonstrate just how damaging this attitude can be.  It leads this country to impose its will in ways that hurt our interests internationally, harms the alleged beneficiaries locally, and causes them to turn against us politically.

The embargo may seem a small thing to many in the U.S.  It is, in fact, a much larger and more powerful symbol than many understand.  Reversing it will not only help Cubans lead better lives, it could be a small step in a bigger effort to change how the U.S. is perceived and received in the world.  Someday, we hope that President Obama acts to dismantle the embargo, remove all travel restrictions, and put us on course for a normal relationship with Cuba.

It won’t solve all of our problems.  But it would make him truly exceptional.

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What Obama can do to stop driving the world and Brazil nuts

September 27, 2013

This week at the United Nations General Assembly, Brazil’s president, Dilma Rouseff, earned global attention with a strongly-worded condemnation of the NSA surveillance program that violated the privacy of her own email, telephone calls, and text messages, and that of communications throughout Brazil.

“We face,” she told the General Assembly and an audience of world leaders, “a situation of grave violation of human rights and of civil liberties; of invasion and capture of confidential information concerning corporate activities, and especially of disrespect to national sovereignty.

We expressed to the Government of the United States our disapproval, and demanded explanations, apologies and guarantees that such procedures will never be repeated. The problem, however, goes beyond a bilateral relationship. It affects the international community itself and demands a response from it. Information and telecommunication technologies cannot be the new battlefield between States.”

Not since Hugo Chávez, the late president of Venezuela, likened then-president George W. Bush to the devil, and accused him of acting “as if he owned the world,” has a UN General Assembly address by a Latin American leader generated this much news.

What makes this development different – and, for U.S. foreign policy more disconcerting – is that President Rouseff cannot be dismissed as easily as President Chávez often was for representing what Cold Warriors called “the pink tide.”  She is the leader of the largest economy in South America, the sixth largest in the world. Her county is among those most likely to be next made a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council.  Brazil is a huge export market for the U.S. – just ask Boeing – and they are the global destination for FIFA’s next World Cup and the IOC’s next summer Olympic Games.

Moreover, she is not alone, and what is dividing the United States from its natural partners in the region and other nations around the world is not just U.S. snooping but their growing willingness to diverge from the U.S. on issues where we have historically expected them simply to fall into line.

Chilean President Sebastian Piñera urged greater reforms in the Security Council than the U.S. supports.  Others displayed divisions over reforming drug policy.  El Salvador’s President, Mauricio Funes, among our closest allies in Latin America, broke with the U.S. over Cuba policy, and called what he termed the blockade “a relic of the past.”

Sometimes, what is said at the UN can really matter.  So, it is heartening that when President Obama spoke to the General Assembly, he ruled out American support for regime change in Iran, as he pursued a diplomatic end to its nuclear weapons programs, and that he later declared, “We are no longer in a Cold War. There’s no Great Game to be won.”  Those of us who think about U.S.-Cuba policy could hardly help nodding our heads.

But, we can only gauge what words are worth by measuring the actions taken in their wake.  If the president can reach an accommodation with Iran’s government that acknowledges its legitimacy; if he can say to the world, in the context of Russian diplomacy on Syria, that the Cold War is over, how much longer must we wait for him to apply these conclusions to his management of U.S.-Cuba relations?

We know he knows better.  YouTube has the evidence on tape (take that, NSA!).  We know the world is impatient for the U.S. to come around; we face global condemnation in the next few weeks at the U.N. for maintaining the embargo against Cuba, and a regional boycott at the next Summit of the Americas if the U.S. tries again to exclude Cuba.

Now is the time for the president to act. It is time to take the good and important things he does below the radar – the negotiations, the travel reforms, the tamped down rhetoric – and make a public commitment to end the Cold War in the last theater where it is still being waged.  It will modernize a policy that has been flawed and failed for decades. It will help the Cuban people.  It is in our national interest for him to do this.

Even more, if in the course of normalizing relations, the president shows the world that we need not listen to their phone calls to actually hear what they are saying, the importance of this action will resonate loudly beyond the boundaries of Cuba.  That can – and should – be his legacy.

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Vigil in Madrid: Some thoughts about Oscar and Miriam

August 23, 2013

“I expect the end to come soon.”

Miriam Leiva wrote these words about her husband, Oscar Espinoza Chepe, whose long struggle against liver disease seems near its end in Hospital Fuenfría near Madrid in Spain.  As we read her message, we were reminded why we respect this couple so much.

They just like to tell the truth as they see it.

Their candor made some people in Havana and Miami very uncomfortable.  Three years ago, Oscar referred to hardliners in both cities as “The Taliban.”  This may explain why Oscar and Miriam are rarely mentioned by the embargo’s biggest supporters in Washington, because their views never fit so neatly into the hardliner’s black-and-white definition of what constitutes “dissent.”

Oscar Espinosa Chepe, an economist and independent journalist, fell from grace in Cuba more than once. In the 1960s, after serving as an economist for Fidel Castro, he was sent to work in the fields after he expressed negative views about the economic situation in his country.

In the 1980s, Oscar, back in favor and working as an economic counselor, served for three years in Eastern Europe with Miriam, then a member of Cuba’s foreign service, just as perestroika was beginning to take hold.  But, upon their return to Cuba for a vacation, they were told they could not go back to Europe.  Instead, Oscar was assigned to work at the National Central Bank of Cuba.

In 1992, they were called to a meeting where Oscar was called out as “counter-revolutionary.” For the next twenty years, he and Miriam were devoted activists, though, as Oscar said, “We expressed our views in a pacific way.”

Oscar was arrested with 74 others in Cuba’s March 2003 crackdown.  Sentenced to twenty years, Oscar left prison after twenty months, released on a temporary medical parole; at any time, authorities could have ruled he was no longer sick and returned him to custody.

Nevertheless, upon leaving custody, Oscar resumed speaking his mind.  While he praised President Raúl Castro’s economic reforms as sensible and rational if incomplete, he was sharply critical of officials inside the system who were obstacles to change, and criticized those who saw private property as incompatible with social justice.

He chastised the government for failing to reciprocate President Obama’s “gestures,” the reforms on family and people-to-people travel.  He expressed his bewilderment at the imprisonment at Alan Gross and thought he should be set free.

This record of speaking out could have endeared Oscar to sanctions supporters in Miami except for his unshirted contempt for those he called “Hardliners for Castro.” He believed their support of sanctions kept Cubans hostage to their dreams of returning to power in a Cuba that last existed during Batista’s reign in the 1950s.  He resented their attacks on Cuba’s Catholic Church, which was instrumental in freeing the remaining prisoners arrested in 2003, along with many others.

In his statement opposing travel restrictions offered by Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart, Oscar said: “If the policies proposed for Cuba by the hardliners had been maintained for Eastern Europe and China, we would possibly still have a Berlin Wall and the heirs of the Gang of Four would still govern China.”

Oscar and Miriam, in their work together, were motivated by a spirit of reconciliation that included everyone; even those who took no personal risks, but sat in air conditioned offices far from Cuba and questioned their credibility as political activists.  Instead, they chose to believe that all Cubans could work together, that families could reunite, and that “all animosity prevailing in our country since March 10, 1952 can be overcome.”

Earlier this year, a medical crisis led them to depart Cuba for Spain, so Oscar could receive what Miriam then called “urgent” medical attention for his chronic liver failure.

Another truth Oscar never left unspoken was his love for Miriam, especially when he recalled the vigils she organized with other spouses and family members of the 75 detainees.  He once said of her: “She is modest. She is brave, especially as demonstrated by her actions while I was in prison.”  Whether he was in Guantanamo or Santiago de Cuba, “she was there.”

Now, on another vigil, Miriam is there for Oscar again.  By posting updates on Facebook and a blog, Reconciliación Cubana, she has made it possible for us to accompany her on this sad, respectful, journey that she hopes will end soon.

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