Colonel Campbell, Guantánamo, and righting wrongs

March 21, 2014

When Army Col. Larry Campbell approached the podium on February 22nd to deliver his remarks to The Black Heritage Organization to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, he did nothing wrong.

To the contrary, he spoke truths that deserved the attention of a wider audience.

In his address, Col. Campbell was plainspoken about our nation’s history of racism and resentment; about the generations who came and went without enjoying full and equal dimensions of their citizenship; and the walls of resistance that the Civil Rights Movement had to scale in the – still incomplete – fight for equality.

He said with pride that “military formations are fully integrated,” without pausing over the remarkable fact that the armed services were the first major American institution to integrate or the hard truth that it took five years for Harry Truman’s executive order to be implemented for 95% of African American soldiers to serve in integrated units.

Col. Campbell used the occasion to express his abiding faith in the democratic process and in his country’s capacity for self-correction.  Yet, neither we nor you would have heard about his speech had the news about the event not been subject to such ridicule.

Why? Because the Black Heritage Organization, which held its annual Black History Month banquet, and invited Col. Campbell to speak, happens to be located at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

Yes, Guantánamo; where books like “The Gulag Archipelago” and “The African American Slave” cannot be read by the prisoners who are detained there; where the prisoner detentions compromise the position of the United States on human and civil rights.

So, when an article was published with the headline, GTMO celebrates 50 years of civil rights in America, well-meaning bloggers just couldn’t help themselves.  What followed was snark like this, “I can’t say much for the event, but that headline…,” and snark like this, “It’s a holiday in Guantánamo!”  It was all about the jokes, without making much time for understanding what was really going on.

That’s a shame.  Neither Col. Campbell nor the Black Heritage Organization are responsible for what is taking place on Guantánamo now, nor are they accountable for the larger historical error represented by the U.S. hanging onto Cuban land, or U.S.-Cuba policy writ large.

We need to be clear about Guantánamo.

We talked about it in our book about promoting U.S.-Cuba engagement, in the chapter contributed by Gen. James T. Hill, who wrote about the cooperation that takes place over the fence posts between Cuba’s armed forces (FAR) and our own military, and the work they could do together to enhance both country’s security.

Like many of our readers, we would like to see the prison at Guantánamo closed for good.  We supported the patriotic efforts of former White House counsel Greg Craig to achieve this objective. While gestures like the one offered by Uruguay’s President José Mujica, who expressed his willingness to accept Guantánamo detainees into his country, alleviate some of the suffering, we hope that Clifford Sloan is able to complete the job Greg Craig started, and soon.

Plans exist — like the detailed proposal crafted by Michael Parmly, former chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana — for addressing the issue of the detainees imprisoned at Guantánamo, and returning rightful ownership to Cuba of land that’s been wrongfully under U.S. control for over a century. The European Union is hard at work changing its foreign policy toward Cuba.

In other words, the problems of U.S.-Cuban relations and Guantánamo do not require new proposals or special thinking to get solved; they require leadership and the determination to make decisions and see them through to the end, the same ingredients that made the integration of the U.S. military and the passage of the Civil Rights Act possible.

Those of us who advocate for Cuba policy reform, but are discouraged by the pace of change in Washington, might take hope from the message that Col. Campbell delivered at Guantánamo’s Civil Rights Act celebration: “History has always afforded this Nation the ability to right a wrong and press forward by not repeating the same mistakes of the past.”

We couldn’t agree more.  That’s why we wanted to bring the Colonel’s speech to our readers’ attention.

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Sanctions on Diabetics in U.S. Fail to Topple Cuban Government

October 18, 2013

It is well known that the U.S. embargo causes suffering in Cuba.

Supporters of U.S. sanctions say that strangling Cuba’s economy will lead the system to fail (someday), and motivate Cubans to rise up against their government and establish a multiparty liberal democracy.

The rest of us – the majority – are supposed to be okay with substituting sadism for diplomacy; and, since a cornerstone of sanctions is blocking travel to Cuba by most U.S. residents, the fact that our policy contributes to joblessness and hunger on the island remains hidden from most of us.

Less well known, however, is that we also imposed the embargo on ourselves. We’re not just punishing Cubans but also exacting real hardships on our families and our neighbors.

Case in point:  Under the embargo, people with diabetes in the U.S. are not allowed to have access to a promising treatment that could stop needless amputations of their limbs because it was developed in Cuba.

Last week, we carried a report on a drug called Heberprot-P, developed by Cuba’s Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology.  According to the Associated Press, this medication is already at work in fifteen countries and treating more than 100,000 patients.

Because the therapy was developed at an  Institute considered to be an arm of Cuba’s government, it can’t be put to clinical trials or marketed in the U.S. without approval by our government.

Seeking that permission would be pretty big health story, right?

But, when U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia (FL-26) wrote a letter to the Treasury Department urging that it grant a license so the drug could be tested in the U.S., the Miami Herald covered the political controversy that ensued when hardliners asked if “Garcia’s exile bona fides” could still be trusted.

That issue is very interesting to people who live in the Miami media market, and we understand that the Herald was doing its job by covering it.

But this problem is not about politics but diabetes, and it’s a big problem.

According to the National Institutes of Health, 25.6 million adults in the U.S. live with diabetes. Some of them develop peripheral arterial disease and fall prey to “ulcers and infections that may lead to amputation.”  As the AP said last week, an estimated 70,000 Americans undergo an amputation every year due to complications from diabetes.

What if we could drive that number down, closer to zero?

Suppose Cuba has, in fact, developed a treatment that would make many of those amputations unnecessary; wouldn’t we want clinical trials to test its efficacy and safety here in the U.S.?

If it proved to be effective, wouldn’t we want that therapy made available to our family, neighbors, and friends as soon as possible?

Of course, we believe that.  But, not everyone does. Capitol Hill Cubans called a therapy that is already helping people in foreign countries avoid unnecessary amputations “the latest Castro bio-scam.”  Of course, they say that other remedies exist, but what they really want is for Rep. Garcia’s effort to fail.

Really?  They want to block access by their fellow Americans to a potentially transformative therapy before they know whether it works; even if they have to lose their legs?

This is the problem with Cuba policy.

Our country has been stuck for six decades with a policy that doesn’t work, because the embargo  debate has mostly taken place inside a community that’s been preoccupied with exacting revenge on the Cuban revolution since 1959.

When the debate about Cuba and its system gets turned into a discussion of whether Americans should have access to a drug that helps them with a horrible condition caused by diabetes – even if that discovery came from Communist Cuba – it makes some hardliners very nervous.

Because if it suddenly seems sensible to bend the embargo to stop the suffering it imposes on us, it could soon become reasonable to end the embargo because it causes even more suffering in Cuba.

Well, here’s a news flash: U.S. sanctions against Cuba and against diabetics here in America have failed to bring down Cuba’s government.  We need a new policy, not a dumb-bargo.

This week, in Cuba news…

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

U.S. travel to Cuba reaches record numbers

Although tourist travel is still banned, and U.S. residents still require a license before traveling to the island, travel is rising.  The number of U.S. citizens not of Cuban descent going to Cuba has reached record highs, reports Reuters. Cuba’s National Statistics Office recorded nearly 100,000 U.S. visitors in 2012, not counting the 350,000 Cuban-Americans estimated to have traveled from the U.S. This number is up from 73,500 the previous year, and indicates that in five years, the number of U.S. travelers going to Cuba doubled.

In addition to providing unlimited family travel for Cuban Americans, President Obama opened up people-to-people travel to the island in early 2011.  His reforms catalyzed interest in visiting Cuba and opened up new, legal opportunities for U.S. residents to go. “Cuba has so much to offer in terms of culture, history and issues of mutual concern – healthcare, education and the environment – and students, professionals, people of faith are curious,” said Collin Laverty, CDA advisor and head of the travel provider Cuba Educational Travel.

By adding Cuba Travel Services Inc. and Gulfstream Air Charters, Tampa International Airport is hoping to meet demand by increasing to four the number of carriers serving the Cuban markets.  As the Tampa Tribune reported last week, they join Tampa’s other two Cuba carriers, Island Travel & Tours and ABC Charters, which are increasing the number of flights to Havana, Cuba and expanding its destination cities.

Florida-based ferry company presents plans for Cuba service

Havana Ferry Partners LLC presented plans for U.S.-Cuba passenger ferry and cargo routes to the Manatee County Port Authority in South Florida this week, reports Bradenton Herald. The plans include fast passenger ferries with 150-person capacity, as well as cargo service. Leonard Moecklin, vice president of the company, told the Port Authority, “It’s time to go to Cuba,” making his case by highlighting potential multi-sectoral business opportunities.

Last month, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) confirmed that passenger ferry or cruise ship service to Cuba is not authorized under existing U.S. rules, and that it does not foresee approving additional means of travel to the island.

OFAC denied approval to Havana Ferry Partners LLC and several other aspiring providers last year, saying their proposals are “beyond the scope of current policy,” which mandates travel to Cuba must be by way of air charter,reports Cuba Standard. According to the article, Havana Ferry LLC, which has both Cuba and U.S.-based investors, has enlisted a Washington lobbying firm to bolster its efforts.

Oscar Hijuelos, Cuban-American Pulitzer Prize winner, dies in Manhattan

Oscar Hijuelos, the Cuban-American novelist and Pulitzer Prize winner, died of a heart attack last weekend in Manhattan, reports the Associated Press. He was 62 years old. Hijuelos was born in the U.S., the son of Cuban immigrant parents. In 1990, he became the first Hispanic to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for his novel, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love.

More recently, Hijuelos authored a memoir titled, Thoughts Without Cigarettes, in which he details his struggles against the label of being an “ethnic” writer. He also writes of a personal loss of Cuban identity after he fell sick on the island during a visit as a child and, after a year-long hospitalization in the U.S.,lost his Spanish-speaking ability. Hijuelos is survived by his wife Lori Marie Carlson, reports Reuters.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Cuba reinstates ambassador to Paraguay

Juan Domingo Astiasarán Ceballo has been named Cuba’s Ambassador to Paraguay, marking the normalization of relations between the two countries, reports BBC Mundo. Cuba suspended relations with Paraguay in the summer of 2012 after the dismissal of President Fernando Lugo, which Cuba’s government deemed a “Parliamentary coup.” Cuba declared that it “would not recognize any authority that didn’t come from legitimate suffrage and the exercise of the Paraguayan people’s sovereignty.”

Following elections in April, Horacio Cartes’ was inaugurated this August as Paraguay’s president, and Paraguay has been readmitted to Mercosur and Unasur, the diplomatic and economic organizations that foster Southern Hemisphere integration. Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay have also reinstated their diplomatic posts.

Brazilian sugar industry working on $200 million project with Cuba

Representatives of Brazil’s sugar industry met with Cuba’s state company Azcuba in Havana last week to negotiate a $200 million project, reports Cuba Standard. The project aims to revitalize Cuba’s sugar industry through a pilot project at a Cienfuegos sugar mill, seeking to increase sugar production from 25,000 metric tons to 140,000 metric tons. A subsidiary of Brazilian conglomerate Odebrecht has been jointly operating the mill since signing a 13-year contract with Azcuba last year.

State-owned Cuba Ron partners with French company Belvédère

Cuba Ron will release a high-end rum through French company Belvédère this month, reports Cuba Standard.  Belvédère, which signed a 5-year contract with the Cuban company, plans to bottle and market the rum to 140 countries. Cuba Ron has long held a contract with French company Pernod Ricard for its popular Havana Club line. The sale of Cuban rum remains illegal in the United States.

IN CUBA

Catholic Church announces business series aimed at cuentapropistas

The Catholic Church in Cuba will begin offering business workshops and a degree program to Cubans wishing to enter the growing private sector, reports the Associated Press. The Compañía de Jesús y los Hermanos La Salle will lead a three-month workshop, as well as a two-year degree program administered through la Universidad de La Salle in Mexico, and the Havana Office of the Archbishop will give a one-month course, reports Diario de Cuba. The programs, to be offered entirely independent of the state education system, will cover a basic entrepreneurial skill-set which includes accounting, tax regulations, and material sourcing.

The series “is designed to teach people basic business management,” said Jorge Mandilego, director of the Office of the Archbishop’s CubaEmprende, who described the program as offering “basic but necessary knowledge to adapt to our country’s plan,” reports the Associated Press.

Through its publications Palabra Nueva and Espacio Laical, Cuba’s Catholic Church has encouraged dialogue regarding Cuba’s economic reform process, often publishing articles on the subject by economists and other academics.

The National Association of Economists and Accountants of Cuba (ANEC) began offering finance and accounting courses to cuentapropistas and cooperative members in both state and non-state sectors last month in the Villa Clara province. In October 2011, the Catholic Church announced an MBA program in collaboration with professors from the San Antonio Catholic University of Murcia in Spain.

Party leader speaks on need to eliminate press “secrecy”

At a meeting of the national committee of the Union of Cuban Journalists (UPEC), Rolando Alfonso Borges, of the Central Ideology Committee of the Cuban Communist Party, spoke against secrecy in the island’s media. Borges stated: “the will of the party is that there not be secrecy. We perceive that there is movement in this direction. The country needs that, and needs balance,” according to an article published by the UPEC news outlet.

During the meeting, Communist Party officials and journalists also spoke at length aboutintegrating Cuba’s youth into the field of journalism. Participants emphasized how important it is to keep up with current technology and to make sure to create clear paths for youth to join the profession. Karina Marrón, one of the participants of the event, notedthat “A lot of young people are writing blogs, and we cannot ignore the richness in them.”

Earlier this month, blogger Yoani Sánchez wrote about the distinctions between “official” and “independent” journalism on the island. Independent journalists and bloggers often face temporary detentions and other obstacles; this week, five journalists for Hablemos Press who had been detained since late last week were freed by Cuban authorities, reports EFE.

Debate in Cuba on private tutoring

An article published in Granma provides a description of private tutoring in Cuba, one of the categories of self-employment legalized in 2010. The article interviews several tutors, as well as students and their parents, discussing the different types of tutoring available, and why parents and students feel that after-school supplementary learning is necessary. The end of the article denounces some school teachers, who are not legally permitted to work as tutors, who are doing so regardless, and quotes a student who says that one of her teachers would not include the entire curriculum during the school day, and would teach subjects not covered only in tutoring. The author criticizes placing pressure on students to go to tutoring, calling such actions a “lack of professional ethics,” reports EFE.

In a response, BBC Mundo reporter Fernando Ravsberg criticizes the article for its rebuke of professors that take on tutoring “to make ends meet,” and suggests that “it would suffice to sit down with teachers to search for solutions that are cognizant of the needs of Cuban society and those of educators.”

Over 400 farm co-ops dissolved since 2008

Since 2008, 434 agricultural co-operatives have been shuttered because they are not sufficiently profitable, reports EFE. The co-ops “did not generate the profits necessary for self-financing,” said Ricardo Monzón, an official for Cuba’s Ministry of Agriculture.

Monzón stated that the co-operative’s land would be taken over by private farmers or allocated to other co-operatives. Debts held by shuttered co-operatives “have been renegotiated” with the national bank system, and debts from those cooperatives being run by others “are in the process of being financed for up to 25 years,” reports AFP.

This is another sign of the difficulties Cuba is facing in conquering its dependence on imported food — a national priority.

Cuba denounces damage to health sector caused by the U.S. embargo at the WTO

Cuba’s government denounced the damage that the U.S. embargo has caused its health sector at the World Trade Organization (WTO), reports Prensa Latina. Mónica Rodríguez, Cuba’s representative to international organizations in Geneva, Switzerland, said the embargo has prevented the purchase of medicines and other critical health resources for over fifty years. According to Rodríguez, the total cost of the damage is over one trillion dollars. Rodríguez stated that banks from places like Canada and Zurich have bowed to U.S. pressure, suspending money transfers to Cuba, including money that would have been used for buying products such as flu vaccines. She added that the embargo has negatively affected the work of NGO MediCuba-Suisse in combating cancer and promoting HIV/AIDS prevention. Cuba offers universal healthcare to all of its citizens.

Cuba developing new law on water management

According to Orlando Rey, an official at Cuba’s Ministry of Science, Technology, and the Environment (CITMA), a new law is being prepared to modernize Cuba’s water supply systems, reports Prensa Latina. During a conference in Havana, Rey stated that water scarcity and sanitation, compounded by threats to water access by climate change, are significant issues for environmental planning on the island. Rey did not give details about what will be contained in the new law.

Since Cuba and the U.S. live in the same environmental neighborhood, the costs of climate change are also being borne on this side of the Florida Straits.  Scientists are predicting that “Miami…is doomed,” which makes a clear case for environmental cooperation between the U.S. and Cuba.

Around the Region

Venezuela releases U.S.-operated ship in Guyanese-claimed waters

After seizing a U.S.-operated oil survey ship, and claiming it was violating Venezuela’s maritime territory, Venezuela’s government has agreed to free the ship and its 36 crew members, reports Reuters. The Teknik Perdana is owned by a Malaysian company, was captained by a Ukrainian, and was sailing under a Panamanian flag in territory contested between Guyana and Venezuela. The incident brings to the forefront long-held territorial disputes between the countries.

Foreign Minister Elías Jaua of Venezuela and Foreign Minister Carolyn Rodrigues-Birkett met in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad & Tobago, to discuss the incident and the disputed economic zone waters, reports the Associated Press. The governments of Venezuela and Guyana agreed to meet again in four months to discuss how to proceed on the maritime boundaries dispute, reports Stabroek News. The area in dispute, the Essequibo region, is the most substantial territorial and sea dispute in South America, and claims to this area date back to 1897. There has been no word on whether Venezuela will drop the charges that the ship captain still faces.

Argentina’s President, Cristina Fernández, leaves hospital after brain surgery

Five days after undergoing surgery to remove a blood clot from the surface of her brain, President Cristina Fernández was released from the hospital, reports BBC News. She returned to her official residence where doctors advised her to observe “strict rest” for thirty days. There is no set date for President Fernández’s return to work. Previously, Fernández had plans to campaign in support of congressional candidates from her party for the midterm elections taking place on October 27th. Vice President Amado Boudou is currently carrying out her public duties.

Recommended Reading

Featured Q&A: Are Raúl Castro’s Reforms Helping Cuba’s Economy?, The Inter-American Dialogue’s Daily Latin American Advisor

We thank the Inter-American Dialogue for their generosity in allowing us to link to this issue of its Daily Latin America Advisor.  The publication includes an article – Are Raúl Castro’s Reforms Helping Cuba’s Economy – based on a Q+A with experts on reform process. Collin Laverty, CDA Advisory Board member, says, “Albeit slowly, the process continues to be two steps forward, a half a step backwards, and demographics and economic necessity should keep it that way.”

A crime novelist navigates Cuba’s shifting reality, Jon Lee Anderson, The New Yorker- full version not available online

In this “Letter From Havana,” Jon Lee Anderson tells the story of Leonardo Padura, whom he describes as a “novelist, a journalist, and a social critic who has skirted punishment by the ruling Communist Party.” Anderson explains that the nature of Padura’s work isn’t necessarily perceived as offensive to the regime, but it isn’t meaningless either. In the article, Padura’s views towards the current situation in his country are also portrayed. “There is no current policy of what should or should not be published,” said Padura in a speech mentioned in the article.

Rise in Entrepreneurship Reveals Gender Tensions in Cuba, Sandra Abd’Allah-Alvarez Ramírez, Global Voices

Sandra Abd’Allah-Álvarez Ramírez examines the emergence of women among Cuba’s self-employed and discusses efforts to create a culture of work that supports women entrepreneurs. She highlights a new website, “Mujeres Emprendedoras,” which features an online forum to discuss women in the workplace, opinion articles, and job postings.

This year, CDA published the results of a two-year study on the status of women in Cuba: “Women’s Work: Gender Equality in Cuba and the Role of Women Building Cuba’s Future.”

Cuba ban on private sales of imported goods has some entrepreneurs eyeing uncertain future, Anne-Marie García, the Associated Press

This article takes a look at how a new Cuban law banning private sales of imported goods might affect entrepreneurs, with commentary from those who fear business problems resulting from  the ban.

Avian Artistry, With Smuggled Cigars, Melena Ryzik, The New York Times

A conceptual art piece being executed by Brooklyn-based artist Duke Riley, titled “Trading with the Enemy,” involves homing pigeons trained by the artist to fly from Cuba to Key West, carrying alternately Cuban cigars or lightweight cameras to film the voyage. “I wanted to subvert this billions-of-dollars high-tech system with things that were being used in ancient Sumeria,” says Riley.

In Cuba, murky light thrown by energy saving bulbs, Portia Siegelbaum, CBS

Portia Siegelbaum, the CBS correspondent in Cuba, tells the story of a nation-wide process to reduce energy costs that the island’s government implemented in 2005, profiling its results and consequences. In 2005, households in Cuba changed their usual light bulbs for lower intensity ones provided to them by the government. Today, bulbs are often scarce and highly priced.

Latin America’s ‘bad boy’ leaders enjoy high support, survey finds, Tim Johnson, Miami Herald

Tim Johnson discusses the results of the biannual survey “Approval of Leaders: America and the World.” This survey is conducted by Mexico’s Consulta Mitofsky polling firm and compiles approval ratings for the 19 largest countries throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. The results ironically reflect how the oft U.S.-designated“bad boys” of Latin America and the Caribbean are among the most popular leaders throughout the region.

Recommended Viewing

Cuba photo expo features Indigenous America, Irina Echarry, Havana Times

This photo exhibition is part of the Haydee Santamaría Latin American Art Collection on display in Havana until December at the Casa de las Américas Galería Latinoamericana. The collection continues its celebration of the “Year of Photography” and is titled First Nations: Images of Indigenous America in the 20th Century. The exhibition is comprised of almost entirely black and white photos and depicts indigenous people from Mexico, Perú, Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador and Guatemala.


Talk to Cuba

October 12, 2012

An article published this week by The Cable ran with the headline “Top Romney Advisor supports negotiating with terrorists.”  It told the story of Mitchell Reiss, named one year ago, to a top spot on the Governor’s campaign foreign policy team.

In a 2010 book, Reiss presented “an argument that the United States not only should, but at times must enter into conversations with hostile foreign elements.”  Reiss is not indiscriminate about negotiations and, in fact, published a tough piece in January criticizing the Obama administration’s negotiating strategy with the Taliban; not saying it was wrong, but arguing it was poorly conceived.

Even that was too much for his candidate.  Just four days later, at a debate in South Carolina, when a Fox News reporter asked Governor Romney if Reiss was wrong about talking to the enemy, he threw Reiss under the bus and said yes.

It is odd just how out of fashion talking to our adversaries has become.  We are able to celebrate a milestone this month, the fiftieth anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, because President John F. Kennedy thought that talking to the Soviet Union would be preferable to having our country and theirs blown to kingdom come.  Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev used diplomacy to avoid catastrophe.

This week, Nicholas Burns, a veteran diplomat, wrote about the missile crisis and what lessons it might offer to President Obama and Governor Romney as they think about U.S. foreign policy in 2013 and the years to come.

“Kennedy concluded,” Burns wrote, “that we had to think about the Soviet people in a fundamentally different way if we wanted to avoid nuclear Armageddon… Kennedy advocated building bridges to the Soviets, as the ‘human interest’ of avoiding world war had to eclipse the more narrow ‘national interest.’”

This is, after all, the conclusion that the Government of Colombia and the FARC reached, preparing as they are for peace negotiations next week in Oslo, and later this month in Cuba.  President Juan Manuel Santos is saying already he is confident that the FARC is willing to reach an agreement to end the decades-long civil war.

Direct diplomacy with Cuba is what President Obama promised in the 2008 campaign.  Nothing indiscriminate; “There will be careful preparation. We will set a clear agenda,” Obama said in a speech before the Cuban American National Foundation.  His view was endorsed by Jorge Mas Santos, son of the founder of CANF, once the epicenter of support for a hardline against the Castro government:

“The other centerpiece of U.S. – Cuba policy has been that there should be no negotiations and conversations with Raul Castro,” Mr. Santos said. “Although this may sound tough, on its own it is ineffective and plays into the hands of Raúl Castro.”

At the beginning of his term, Mr. Obama acted as if he could think about Cuba’s people in a different way.  He restarted Migration Talks that George Bush broke off.  He permitted U.S. participation in below the radar, multi-party talks including Cuba on oil drilling in the Gulf and protecting the environment we share.  The governments have spoken directly, about imprisoned U.S. contractor Alan Gross, and at the margins of international conferences.

At times, Cuba’s government was probably uncooperative.  There’s undoubtedly more that we don’t know.  But it’s hard to discern the results if there is.  In a world where talking to “the enemy” is so discredited, this appears to have been all they could do.

Surely, as President Kennedy liked to say, we can do “bettah.”

In 2009, Peter Kornbluh, who directs the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archive, and William LeoGrande, Dean of the School of Public Affairs at American University, published a compelling history of U.S. negotiations with Cuba and laid out a roadmap for how the two countries could sit down and really make progress.

Both candidates can read the entire article on the Internet.  Here’s hoping the victor has a working browser.  If Kennedy could deal with Khrushchev, and Colombia can talk to the FARC, surely the next U.S. president should talk directly to Cuba.  He might consider ending the Cold War and letting the citizens of both countries move along with our lives.  Bolder figures have done a lot more even when faced with greater stakes.

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Oswaldo Payá – On parting as friends

July 27, 2012

Oswaldo Payá, a humble but determined figure in Cuba’s opposition, who believed in non-violent activism as a means for achieving political change on the island, died in a car accident on Sunday.  Also killed was Harold Cepero Escalante, a fellow dissident.  A Swedish citizen and a Spaniard, reportedly at the wheel of the car, were injured in the crash.   We report other details below.

Payá, a Catholic layman, and founder of Cuba’s so-called Christian Liberation Movement, was best known as the main organizer behind the Varela Project, a petition drive that collected thousands of signatures, which called upon his country’s National Assembly to propose new laws to open Cuba’s system.

News of Payá’s death was received by Cuban allies and friends internationally with sadness and mourning for his activism and his abiding belief that change could occur organically on the island.

His loss also occasioned dark suggestions – expressed by grieving family members and in the opinion pages of the Washington Post –that his vehicle was intentionally rammed.  But Elizardo Sanchez, founder of the Cuban Human Rights and National Reconciliation Commission told the Associated Press,“We rule out any conspiracy theory.” Diplomats connected to the Europeans traveling with Mr. Payá, told Reuters “they believe it was a genuine accident and it appeared the car was speeding.”

Despite these statements, members of the U.S. Senate introduced a resolution calling upon the island’s government to “allow an impartial, third-party investigation in the circumstances surrounding (his) death.”

That Mr. Payá’s passing would be a source of contention, even politicization, is hardly a surprise.  His unique approach attracted support and courted controversy during his life.

By technique and demeanor, Payá didn’t fit any stereotype of a regime opponent.  As the New York Times reported, Mr. Payá “created a new model with his humility, his public rejection of both American aid and the American trade embargo, and his effort to draw Cubans into the movement.

“By trying to reform the Castro government,” the Times said, “Mr. Payá placed himself in the middle of two extremes. Reviled by the government, he was not much loved by hard-line Cuban exiles in Miami, either; they appreciated the attention he garnered but said he was naïve.”

They called him naïve because he wouldn’t hew to their line that regime change supported by the U.S. was the only way forward.

In a meeting with visitors from the U.S., Payá once said “we don’t have arms, we don’t believe in coup d’état, we don’t believe in outside intervention.  We Cubans must bring about the change.”

While he was no fan of the U.S. embargo against Cuba, he challenged visitors to think not about U.S. policy, but instead to focus on the economic, political, and social problems that affected everyday Cubans. A man with a lowered voice and an outstretched hand, he would say about disagreements in our perspectives, “if we cannot be partners, we can at least be friends.”

What decency.

Our hearts go out to his family and friends, colleagues and allies, who are suffering because of his loss.

This week in Cuba news…

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