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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Gates, Walls and Doors

January 10, 2014

Not long after President Obama returned to The White House from his holiday vacation, he was greeted by headlines in the national press about attacks on his leadership by his former Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates.

In leaks from his forthcoming memoir, “Duty,” Mr. Gates writes of Obama’s skepticism toward his own policy on Afghanistan.  “For him,” he writes, “it’s all about getting out.”

While Bob Woodward, like others in the ranks of Washington pundits, reported this as a “harsh judgment” against the President’s leadership on national security, Ron Fournier, writing in the National Journal, took a more sympathetic view.

Where Gates attacks the President for complaining about a policy he inherited and for doubting his own commanders, Fournier writes:  “We need more of that.”

According to Fournier, the President was reflecting the desires of the public to exit two unpopular wars, and demonstrating the kind of skepticism, curiosity, and reflection that is the president’s job.  In other words, President Obama was leading by following the better angels of his nature to where they might lead him.

Before his election in 2008, President Obama said, “It is time for us to end the embargo against Cuba.”  He justified his position by saying the policy had not helped Cubans enjoy rising living standards; instead, it squeezed innocents and didn’t improve human rights.  “It’s time for us to acknowledge” he said, “that particular policy had failed.”

While then-Senator Obama adhered to the traditional goals of U.S. foreign policy toward Cuba, he also acknowledged the simple reality that the embargo failed to achieve them.

We don’t expect President Obama to seek repeal of the embargo anytime soon, but we do believe that 2014 could be a year of greater openings toward Cuba, even if it means the President has to be the same kind of leader that made Robert Gates so angry.

After all, he has done it before.  In reopening Cuba to travel by Americans of Cuban descent, restoring categories of people-to-people travel, and negotiating with the Cuban government on issues such as migration and postal service, we saw the President set aside the views of his opponents, and even members of his own party, like Senator Bob Menendez, to put forward important and effective policy reforms that reflect his principles, his pragmatism, and the views of the American public writ large.

Going forward, there is much that President Obama can do using his executive authority.

Like many of our allies, The Center for Democracy in the Americas supports making all forms of people-to-people travel possible using a general license.

We strongly support direct negotiations with Cuba’s government to produce an action plan on the environment –so essential as Cuba looks to resume oil drilling in 2015– and ending the bar on Cuba’s participation in next year’s Summit of the Americas, which would give the United States a greater opening in Latin America more broadly. In addition, our research on gender equality in Cuba has led us to support policies to help Cuban women weather the transition in the island’s economy and provide real support for Cubans who choose to open small businesses.

In his epic song, Muros y Puertas, our friend Carlos Varela writes, “Since the world began, one thing has been certain, some people build walls, while others open doors.”

In 2014, we hope the President’s policy continues to reflect just this spirit of openness.  It is better to open doors  than build walls, or even Gates, for that matter.

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Castor’s Got Courage, But Has Kerry Got Game?

April 26, 2013

Kathy Castor, Tampa’s representative in Congress, has got courage.  Of the twenty-seven members of Florida’s delegation, only five have more Cuban Americans in their districts than she has living in hers.  None but Castor has made the effort, as she did a few weeks ago, to visit Cuba.

When Ms. Castor returned home, she wrote President Obama and urged him to modernize Cuba policy.  She asked the president to support Cuba’s economic reforms, end the travel ban, lift trade restrictions, engage Cuba in a dialogue on human rights, and, critically, to remove Cuba from the State Sponsors of Terror List.

Such clear, forward thinking was too much for Ralph Fernandez, a Tampa attorney, who “pinned the label ‘terrorist’ on Castor,” as the Tampa Bay Business Journal reported, and said “she joins all terrorists of the western hemisphere in solidarity with the (Castro) regime and tyranny that has brought pain and agony to my people.”

Such rhetoric was sad, but not surprising, and the tactic was all too familiar.  The noisiest critics of the system in Cuba like to stanch free debate in America to stop courage like Castor’s from becoming contagious.

In this case, the name-calling backfired, and emboldened constituents rose to her defense.  Patrick Manteiga, publisher of Tampa’s La Gaceta newspaper, donated space for a full-page ad in last week’s issue that saluted Castor “on her historic trip to Cuba” and he got more than 300 area residents to sign on…in Florida.

This is further proof that the politics around Cuba issues is changing, that the Cuba Lobby, which has petrified politicians and paralyzed policy for decades, can be challenged not just by rare instances of courage but by compelling examples of common sense.

It may take time for this truth to move from Tampa Bay to the halls of Congress, but we hope it’s heard in Foggy Bottom and that the U.S. State Department gets the message fast.

By April 30th, Secretary of State John Kerry must decide whether Cuba should be removed from the list of countries designated as State Sponsors of Terror.

Kerry has previously spoken sensibly on terrorism.  Presiding over the confirmation of Hillary Rodham Clinton to serve as Secretary of State, John Kerry, then-chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said:

In the last seven years, we have spent the treasure of this nation – young American soldiers, first and foremost, and billions of dollars – to fight terrorism, and yet grave questions remain as to whether or not we have chosen our battles correctly, pursued the right strategy, defined the right goals.

Now that Kerry is running State, it’s time for him to pursue the right strategy and act decisively by removing Cuba from the terror list.  The merits are clear.

“None of the reasons that landed Cuba on the list in 1982 still exist,” as the Los Angeles Times explained recently. “A 2012 report by the State Department found that Havana no longer provides weapons or paramilitary training to Marxist rebels in Latin America or Africa. In fact, Cuba is currently hosting peace talks between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and President Juan Manuel Santos’ government.”

This is just the point Rep. Castor made to President Obama.  “One of the reasons used to justify Cuba’s presence on the State Sponsors of Terror List was its support of the FARC.  This rationale is no longer valid, and it provides our nation with an opportunity to remove Cuba from the list and focus on global actors who need our attention.”

After returning from Cuba, on a trip led by the Center for Democracy in the Americas, Rep. Castor never stopped working.  She used contacts she made at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana to connect grandparents in her district to Cuban and U.S. officials, trying to facilitate the return of Chase and Cole Hakken, children abducted by their parents in Tampa and taken by boat to Cuba.

The same Tampa attorney who called out Castor assured local media that the parents, who were fugitives in Cuba, were safe, “there’s no extradition…There’s nothing that can be done.”

Soon after, the Cubans arrested the parents and returned them to Florida where they face a variety of serious charges, and the boys, ages 4 and 2, were reunited with their grandparents proving, as Rep. Castor said, “the value of engagement” and the importance of reforming the policy.

Whether it takes common sense or courage, something can always be done.  Kathy Castor proved it, and so can John Kerry, if he’s got game.
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