Democracy: Is there an app for that?

July 3, 2014

We are on the cusp of our July 4th holiday here in the U.S., when we remember the revolutionary origins of our country and celebrate our independence with baseball, beer, and displays of fireworks accompanied by a spirited rendition of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.

Because we’re eager to finish the work week, we’re circulating our Cuba Central News Blast a little early so you can read the news now and all of us can join the party.

We start with Chip Beck, a U.S. citizen with ties to the CIA and the Navy.  According to this blog post on Wikistrat, between 1998 and 2001, while he was working as a freelance journalist, Beck traveled to Havana and received significant cooperation from the Cuban government as he investigated the disappearance of Americans in Asia, Africa, and Central America during the Cold War.  It’s a great story.

In Beck’s account of his five trips to the island, he describes familiar sounding offers by Havana to sit down and negotiate with Washington without preconditions, so long as the U.S. recognized Cuba as a sovereign nation.  He concludes by quoting a conversation he had on the Malecón with a Cuban he identifies only as a single mom with a college degree.

She said, “If you tell a Cuban what to do, he will do the opposite just to spite you. If you [Americans] stop telling us what to do, things will work out exactly like you want.”

Needless to say, this was very good advice which, a dozen years later, we’re still waiting for the U.S. government to heed.

Instead, President Obama, the 11th president in charge of foreign relations with Cuba’s revolutionary government, pursues the stale and failed policy he inherited from his predecessors.  On one track, he has made some important moves to promote two-way travel, family reconciliation, and modest forms of bilateral cooperation.  But, on the second track, he aggressively enforces the embargo with its international overreach to shut down Cuba’s access to finance and global trade.

As of last week, for example, his Administration had already imposed penalties totaling $4.9 billion against 22 banks for violating U.S. sanctions against doing business with Cuba.  That record was shattered by a penalty meted out against BNP Paribas, which pled guilty to two charges, agreed to pay a nearly $9 billion fine, and accepted bans for one and two years respectively on certain dollar clearing and processing activities – all for violations of sanctions against countries including Cuba.  This led the Bank of Ireland, which has “long-standing customers with legitimate business interests in Cuba,” to tell them it would no longer clear their transactions to or from Cuba, as the Independent reported.

At a time when tens of thousands of Cubans (like our friend Barbara Fernández) are working hard to take advantage of economic reforms – in cooperatives and private businesses – in order to live more prosperous and independent lives, tightening the screws on a policy that disregards their nation’s sovereignty and increases their daily struggles makes no sense.

Eric Schmidt, Google’s Executive President, who just wrapped up a visit to Cuba during which he voiced support for an open Internet, underscored the contradictory goals of U.S. policy in a blog post about his trip.

“The ‘blockade’,” he writes, “makes absolutely no sense to US interests: if you wish the country to modernize the best way to do this is to empower the citizens with smart phones (there are almost none today) and encourage freedom of expression and put information tools into the hands of Cubans directly.”

We were in Cuba at the same time as Google and heard Cubans express similar ideas.  They want an Internet opening to complement their economic opening.  They want workers, especially working women, to be able to get online and connect to their jobs from home.  They want a more lively public debate. Just as Cubans are now free to travel overseas, they want to be able to access more information without having to leave.  Dumping restrictions – whether on technology, U.S. travel, or finance – imposed by the U.S. would put what Cubans want in greater alignment with the ostensible goals of U.S. policy and help them get it.

Writing about the architects of our nation and their ideals, former Senator Gary Hart described what the Founders saw in history’s great republics: civic duty, popular sovereignty, resistance to corruption, and a sense of the commonwealth; what we own in common that binds us together.  Every time we visit the island, we see Cubans who share these ideals as well.

July 4th is a great day to celebrate the virtues of our system, which are many, but it can also be an occasion for some humility. In Cuba’s case, that means to stop telling them what to do, and showing respect to Cubans and their ability to figure out their future and how they want to live for themselves.

If you need help figuring out why, when we celebrate Independence Day, we set off fireworks to music commemorating Russia’s defense of Moscow against Napoleon, listen here.

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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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La política no cabe en la azucarera

July 19, 2013

Last week, when we wrote about new legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives to extinguish people-to-people travel to Cuba, we knew it was bad.

We write today with a greater urgency.  A deeper analysis of the proposal by Dawn Gable, CDA’s assistant director, demonstrates how far-reaching an effort to gut travel this amendment represents.  Moreover, the political climate has become more uncertain after the seizure of Cuban cargo hidden beneath brown sugar that may violate the UN arms embargo against North Korea.

First principles first:  We believe in engagement.  We believe that Cuba and the United States are trapped in a self-perpetuating cycle of animosity and distrust because the two governments rarely talk and because both publics have historically been walled off from normal contact.  In the last five decades, both governments have circled each other suspiciously and bad conditions have often been made worse because of the absence of normal dialogue.

That is why we believe so strongly in the value of travel and engagement, because they bring people together, and why we are alarmed by efforts in the Congress to shut down people-to-people travel, stunt Cuban American family travel, and bury an already burdened government office under a mountain of paperwork which will hurt every day Cubans.

Dawn’s analysis highlights the trouble spots.  One provision of the Treasury Department budget bill ends people-to-people travel by defunding its licensing process.  The people-to-people program isn’t perfect and it only reaches a fraction of the U.S. citizens who are interested in visiting Cuba.  But, according to one estimate, more than 103,000 non-Cuban American visitors came to Cuba in 2012, and people-to-people travel made the overwhelming number of them possible.

Groups that sponsor travel including – colleges, museums, environmental groups, groups that do economic research and urban development groups, groups that support medical and other forms of cooperation, peace groups, and foreign policy groups – these and many others – would no longer have licenses to sponsor travel to Cuba.  The legislation would airmail us back to the travel ban days of President George W. Bush.

Wait, as the saying goes, it gets worse.  Today, Cuban American families can visit their relatives in Cuba as often as they wish and provide them unlimited financial support, also called “remittances.”  Family remittances help relatives make ends meet for the tight household budgets of Cuban families, and are increasingly feeding the growth of private sector businesses opened by every day Cubans under President Raúl Castro’s economic reforms.  The visits and the support do not require licenses or paperwork of any kind.

That would end.  If this bill became law, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) the agency inside Treasury charged with implementing U.S. trade sanctions would be required to report to Congress on “all family travel” as well as all travel involving the legal carrying of remittances to Cuba, including by family of USINT employees. The report would include: number of travelers; average duration of stay for each trip; average amount of U.S. dollars spent per traveler; number of return trips per year; and total sum of U.S. dollars spent collectively in each fiscal year.

OFAC could not compile the report without imposing new requirements on remittances provided by families and on remittances by Americans of all backgrounds to support new businesses or religious organizations or U.S. students studying legally in Cuba.  The only remittances that would not have to be reported would be those paid to Cuba’s political opposition.

To be clear, if you believe that Cuban Americans and all Americans should enjoy the right to travel to Cuba and support everyday Cubans financially, we ask that you heed calls for action by the Latin America Working Group (here) and the Fund for Reconciliation and Development (here) and urge Congress to oppose this bill and President Obama to promise he will veto it.

“A larger, slow-moving thaw,” as the Associated Press reported, had recently seemed to return to bilateral relations in recent weeks.  A member of the Cuban Five returned to the island for good.  Diplomats from both countries, as we report below, had easier times traveling.  Mail service talks took place last month; migrations talks took place this week.

After the North Korean vessel was seized in Panama this week, however, with 220,000 sacks of Cuban brown sugar piled atop a cache of weapons from Cuba, this pattern of progress is now at risk.  We report on this incident in detail later in the blast.

Unsurprisingly, supporters of sanctions on Cuba, its placement on the terror list, and ongoing efforts to overthrow the Cuban government reacted before the facts were in.  In her statement, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said, “I call on the Department of State to immediately cease its migration talks this week with the Cuban regime until it provides clear and coherent answers regarding this incident.”  She also joined several colleagues who wrote Secretary Kerry urging him to pour more sanctions on any country found to be violating the UN embargo.

Rather than gagging diplomacy, this seemed an appropriate time for the two countries to talk, and her demand was ignored by the Obama administration.   More to the point, the State Department refused to get ahead of the facts or to point fingers at Cuba, with Marie Harf, departmental spokeswoman saying, “I would underscore that the issue of the ship isn’t a U.S.-Cuba issue.”  As AFP reported, the UN took the same tack, stating “The Secretary-General awaits the outcome of the investigation into the matter in question and is sure the 1718 Security Council Sanctions Committee will promptly address it.”

Here, we end where we began.  We are heartened that the State Department called people-to-people travel in the national security interest of the U.S. just this afternoon.  Because, none of this will go any easier if this incident becomes a predicate for stopping Cuban Americans from visiting or supporting their families on the island, or cutting off educational travel; nor will we get to the bottom of it faster by cutting off diplomacy between the United States and Cuba.

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