Freedom for One?

February 28, 2014

After more than 15 years behind bars, a Cuban named Fernando González was released from prison on Thursday and immediately turned over to immigration officials.  A member of the “Cuban Five,” Mr. González returned home today to his family.

While we celebrate his freedom, it makes no sense to us that Antonio Guerrero, Ramón Labañino, and  Gerardo Hernandez remain jailed in America, and Alan Gross remains jailed in Cuba, and all still face years of confinement before the reunions with their families can take place.

The Obama Administration has refused appeals to swap the Cuban Five members in exchange for the release of Mr. Gross, dissuaded apparently by phony discussions about equivalence.  Critics say the Cubans were here as spies, but they obfuscate the motives the U.S. government had in sending Mr. Gross to Cuba, and mislead their fellow Americans about his mission when he entered that country and engaged in serious violations of Cuban law.  It seems to serve the purposes of those hardliners to have him sit in prison for his full fifteen year term, so long as he is not considered a spy.

President Obama has a chance to end the suffering of all four prisoners by setting aside the argument over equivalence and do what needs to be done to bring an American, who has been left on a Cold War battlefield, home to be reunited with his family.  If that means ending the wait for the families of the three remaining members of Five for their homecoming, that’s a small price to pay.  It will make the Cubans happy, virtually no one in the United States outside a few precincts in Florida and New Jersey will care, and the President can have the satisfaction of restoring four lives and uniting four families.

Rather than freedom for one, why not mercy and compassion for four?

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When Spring Comes to Washington

April 5, 2013

Tourists, from the U.S. and around the world, flock to Washington at spring time.  They come to hear echoes of this nation’s past, learn about its founding principles, and think about their relevance today.

Visitors to the monuments along the Tidal Basin often stop at the Jefferson Memorial.  Modeled after the Roman Parthenon, it speaks loudly to those who can appreciate his vital and open mind.  One panel reads:

“I am certainly not an advocate for frequent and untried changes in laws and institutions,” quoting a letter he wrote after his presidency, “But I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind.  As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times.”  Otherwise, he concluded, “We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him as a boy…”

Is there a better metaphor for U.S.-Cuba policy, buttoned so uncomfortably into the straitjacket fitted for it by Senator Jesse Helms and Congressman Dan Burton?  You might have read about their Helms-Burton law using Netscape Navigator to “surf” the web when it passed in 1996.

Seventeen years later, the conditions that existed on the ground then – in Havana and Miami, where its passage was demanded – have changed as much as the technology we use to learn about them.

No, Cuba is not marching toward a multiparty democracy.  But, it’s economic system is being revamped, government payrolls are being down-sized, cooperatives and private businesses are on the rise.  State-owned media carry complaints about the slow pace of reform.  Houses and cars are being sold on the open market.  Cubans with cellphones pass in and out of hotels.  Most Cubans, including Cuban dissidents, are free to travel, even tweet their opposition to government policy, and return.  These changes are real, and a Vice President whose last name is Díaz-Canel, not Castro, is in place to carry them forward.

Yes, Florida too, once ground zero for policies like Helms-Burton, has a different look and feel.  President Obama’s travel reforms are speeding the reconciliation of the Cuban family and helping Cuban-Americans support relatives taking advantage of Raúl Castro’s economic reforms.  Miami Cubans, including Carlos Saladrigas, who once led thousands to stop believers from visiting Cuba to witness Pope John Paul II celebrate mass in the Plaza of the Revolution, embraced the chance to see Pope Benedict XVI worship with the island’s faithful.

The last election saw President Obama split the Cuban American vote with his opponent; Miami elected a pro-family travel Democrat to a Congressional seat; and Rep. Kathy Castor (FL-14) is in Cuba right now pursuing the business interests of her district and the foreign policy interests of the United States.  Today, it is the hardliners who are increasingly marginalized, while Mr. Saladrigas and his Cuba Study Group join the ranks of those who have long called for Helms-Burton’s repeal.

These are big changes.  What might Jefferson have thought about them?  History teaches us that our Third President wanted to purchase or annex Cuba for reasons he expressed in his time, which might seem eerily familiar to us in our time.

And yet, spring has come to Jefferson’s capital.  It is easy to imagine that he would find the changes happening in Havana and Miami to be self-evident; that as evidence of what he called “discoveries,” and we might call, “new thinking,” were made, he’d want the policy to be more enlightened; that he’d have us slip from the confining coat of Helms-Burton, and beckon his successor in the White House (with apologies to Chance the Gardener) to turn over a new leaf as well.

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Reality Check

March 1, 2013

The same day that a bipartisan Congressional delegation left Cuba, the Boston Globe triggered a brief and unsatisfactory debate when it reported that “High-level US diplomats have concluded that Cuba should no longer be designated a state sponsor of terrorism.”

That Cuba should be removed from the list has long been the view of authorities from the Council on Foreign Relations to anti-terrorist expert Richard Clarke.  It has been understood for years that the designation was at least out-of-date and a function of domestic politics rather than terrorism policy or reason.  When Cuba was revealed as a broker of the peace process between the government of Colombia and the FARC – after years of being listed as a state sponsor for “supporting” the FARC – it was obvious that the next step was delisting.

This would be in accordance with U.S. law which says, as ABC News pointed out, “in order for any country to be designated as a state sponsor of terrorism, the Secretary of State must determine that the government of that country has repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism,” a finding that our government cannot make regarding Cuba.

But the bodyguard surrounding the status quo moved quickly to discredit the notion that U.S. policy would undergo any change.  Leave it to the State Department to say, “Not so fast.”  In the words of spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, “This Department has no current plans to remove Cuba from the state sponsor of terrorism list.”

Others went further.  As Professor Greg Weeks posted this week, José Cárdenas, a former senior U.S. official, argued in an op-ed piece, that while Cuba is no longer supporting terrorism, it should remain on the list of state anyway.  Weeks called this “pretty much the definition of moving goal posts.”

This is our great problem.  U.S. policy is based on the premise that Cuba must capitulate unilaterally to our demand that it reshape its political system to our liking, or U.S. sanctions will remain in place.  Consequently, when Havana changes the facts on the ground that fall short of that goal, Washington cannot consider them consequential.

No matter that, as The Economist reported, “Raúl Castro has allowed Cubans to buy cars and homes, to lease farmland and to set up small businesses.” Or, “Last year he scrapped curbs on foreign travel.”

No matter that President Raúl Castro, as we reported two weeks ago, has announced that he will abide by the term limits he put into place, or that a far younger man, Miguel Díaz-Canel, apparently less charismatic and unrelated to the Castro family, is being groomed to succeed him.  A Cuban government no longer run by a member of the family is a key goal of U.S. policy, but this development, too, cannot be acknowledged.

Once Raúl Castro made his announcement, as the Miami Herald reported, the maximalists simply moved the goal posts to other demands.

Forget the Castros, said Mauricio Claver-Carone, director of the pro-sanctions U.S. Cuba Democracy lobby, “The most important conditions in Helms-Burton are the legalization of opposition parties, independent media, the dismantling of the State Security apparatus and free and fair elections.” Or as Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said, “(T)he real change in Cuba involves much more than the Castro brothers… The whole system crafted by the Castro brothers is corrupt and must be totally replaced.”

Happily, policymakers who actually take the trouble to visit Cuba, and talk to the Cubans, are more grounded in reality.  As Senator Pat Leahy, leader of the delegation which met with President Castro, Alan Gross, and others, said on network television upon his return, “I think the worst thing that can happen is if we stay either in our country or in their country in this 1960s, 1970s Cold War mentality.  We’re a different century now.”

Cuba has made clear over the last, oh five or six decades its system is not up for negotiation. Thus, the administration must decide whether to be with the maximalists, who argue against the evidence that nothing in Cuba has changed, because everything in Cuba hasn’t changed, or switch to a reality-based policy that takes into consideration developments that actually occur, on issues from terrorism to who is being positioned to run the country, and then respond accordingly.

We’d like to think that Rep. Jim McGovern, who joined Leahy in Cuba, was on to something when he told Nick Miroff of the Global Post, “I feel change is in the air.  To me, this is the moment. We have President Obama, Secretary of State Kerry, and my hope is that they will take some risks and end this last relic of the Cold War.”

That would be nice.

Coming Soon: “Women’s Work: Gender Equality in Cuba and the Role of Women Building Cuba’s Future”

On March 6th, the Center for Democracy in the Americas will release the results of a two-year study on the status of women and gender equality in Cuba.  This week, we have been posting quotes from women we interviewed, as well as photos and other information, on our Facebook page and on Twitter.  Be sure to follow us on Twitter and like our Facebook page – we’ll continue posting updates leading up the official release!

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