End It! What the NY Times and UN say about the US Embargo

October 17, 2014

In its lead editorial on Sunday, “Obama Should End the Embargo on Cuba,” the New York Times reignited the debate on Cuba by calling for the U.S. embargo to be lifted to serve the national interest and provide President Obama with a foreign policy legacy worthy of the name.

In the News Blast below, we report on what the editorial said and what happened after the editorial board said it.

But here, we discuss the October 28th vote in the UN General Assembly on condemning U.S. sanctions against Cuba, and how the embargo complicates our relations with Cuba, our region, and the broader world. We do so having just obtained the Secretary General’s report on the impact of the U.S. embargo on UN member states and institutions that was compiled this summer.

To paraphrase Lincoln, when the General Assembly takes up the Cuba resolution for the 23rd consecutive year, we know “the world will little note, nor long remember” what the UN does. This resolution has been approved every year since 1991. The outcome is hardly in doubt.

In 2013, the resolution carried in the General Assembly by a margin of 188 to 2 with three abstentions. This year, the sole suspense remaining is whether there is any country left – among the ranks of U.S. supporters (Israel) or our agnostics from the Pacific (the Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, and Palau) – who will defect from our side.

This drama offers little suspense for the UN press corps (see their forthcoming articles with the “yawn” emoticon). Yet, it leaves open questions about President Obama’s foreign policy and, as the Times argued, his legacy, that only he can answer.

In September, as President Obama challenged the world community in his General Assembly Address to confront Russia over Ukraine’s sovereignty, confront Ebola to stop the spread of the disease, and confront terrorism without inciting a clash of civilizations, what did he see?

However much he heard their applause –there was applause aplenty – the President was staring at heads of government and state utterly opposed to his policy toward Cuba.

In fact, this coalition of the unwilling extends from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe; from the Pope to Putin; from China to India, the world’s most populous countries to its most prosperous economies in the EU, Japan and South Korea; and all the way to our regional allies Brazil, Colombia, Chile, El Salvador, and Mexico.

Yes, at least 188 UN members oppose us; but, more than the numbers, it is the words that our allies and adversaries use about us that illustrate how much the embargo turns the world against us.

Listen to just some of the language submitted by member states to the Secretary General’s report on why they oppose the embargo; it tracks what President Obama said to the General Assembly last month to rally the world to his side so closely that it’s eerie.

In defending Ukraine against Russia, the President said: “We believe that right makes might –that bigger nations should not be able to bully smaller ones, and that people should be able to choose their own future.”

In the UN report, El Salvador criticized our Cuba policy saying, “Respect for a people’s freedom to determine its own history can never be disputed.”

While the President said, “Too often, we have failed to enforce international norms when it’s inconvenient to do so,” Egypt said the embargo is “morally unjustifiable and legally indefensible, and runs counter to the norms of international law.”

Where Obama said, “on issue after issue, we cannot rely on a rule book written for a different century,” Russia wrote, “the embargo imposed by the United States against Cuba is counterproductive and a remnant of the cold war.”

If he picked up a copy of the UN report, the President could read how the embargo impairs Cuba’s ability to treat children with heart disease and leukemia, stops Cuba from purchasing vaccines from the U.S. that protect its livestock against viruses and its people against food insecurity, and disrupts legal, two-way trade, even in the middle of financial transactions, as passwords disappear from back office banking operations and Cuba’s letters of credit are rejected by institutions which honor them from everyone else.

If he read the Secretary General’s report, the President would see Vietnam, which ended its state of war with America through dialogue and negotiation, calling on the U.S. and Cuba to settle our differences “through dialogue and negotiation,” with mutual respect “for each other’s independence and sovereignty.”

Then, he could sit in the Oval Office and think about whether he wants to leave the White House in 2017 with the embargo he inherited from John F. Kennedy virtually intact; having failed in its purpose to overthrow Cuba’s government, but having damaged everyday Cubans and isolated the U.S. from the island and the region.

He might also think about how his next challenge to the world will be received, after the world’s challenges to the Bush, Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations to drop the embargo have been disregarded over the course of 23 years.

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The anti-isolationist, pro-free trade, Cuba embargo supporters

September 19, 2014

This week, two staunch defenders of the U.S. embargo against Cuba came out against isolationism and in favor of expanding global trade.

Huh?

Not that he didn’t mean it – although the AP headline, “Sen. Rubio adopts role of foreign policy hawk,” suggests otherwise – Senator Rubio gave a speech and published an op-ed marking clear lines between those he deems “isolationist,” including President Obama, former Secretary Clinton, and Senator Rand Paul, and those who understand the dangers of the world by involving themselves and our country in them.

The speech, as it appeared to the Washington Times, was part of Rubio’s larger political strategy, because he is “considering seeking the 2016 presidential nomination.” That logic we understand. But, it’s hard to reconcile Rubio’s interest in stopping flights to Cuba by American travelers and condemning investment overtures by the U.S. business community, with his principled opposition to isolationism.

Then, his colleague, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, gave flight on Twitter in favor of expanding trade and creating more jobs in South Florida. This made perfect sense, economically and politically. In the metro area where her South Florida district is located, exports in 2013 alone totaled $41 billion and accounted for 67% of Florida’s total merchandise exports, according to figures from the U.S. Commerce Department.

We get it. It’s good to be for jobs. However, it’s hard to reconcile her tweet for trade with her deeply personal criticisms of Floridians who seek to sell agriculture exports to Cuba. She once said of these Florida farmers, “They mask their greed with this veneer of humanitarianism but Mother Teresa they are not.” More recently, she called Alfonso Fanjul, a leader of the exile community, “pathetic” and “shameful,” because he wants to return to Cuba as an investor doing business in the sugar industry.

What she’s done is more than throw shade on her constituents. All of U.S. agriculture is affected by food export restrictions she supports, put into place by President George W. Bush. Corn and soy producers are still working Washington to get these barriers taken down 14 years after food sales to Cuba were legalized.

In their statements, Rubio and Ros-Lehtinen are doing more than grandstanding. We focus on them now – as we did two weeks ago after their staff members visited China on a junket paid for by the Chinese government – because their risible double-standards shouldn’t distract us from the serious human impacts of their policies to isolate Cuba, diplomatically and economically.

They support immigration policies which incentivize Cubans to take to rafts to gain entry into the United States, policies that just contributed to the largest death toll from any migrant boat disaster in more than two decades. Those policies also resulted in a criminal indictment of a Miami businessman who financed the operation that smuggled Yasiel Puig out of Cuba, who was then held captive in Mexico to extort a promise to pay the smugglers 20% of his future earnings.

At a time when Cuba is sending 165 medical professionals to fight the Ebola outbreak in Africa, they also support the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program, which is still working to accelerate the Cuban brain drain, when the U.S. should be backing every country responding to this humanitarian crisis, including Cuba.

None of this will lift the spirits of Alan Gross, the former USAID subcontractor, who is about to observe Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, for the fifth consecutive year in a Havana prison. He was convicted for activities financed by the Helms-Burton law, whose purpose is to overthrow Cuba’s government, activities that Rubio and Ros-Lehtinen both support.

Mr. Gross, we’re sure, won’t appreciate the irony of Senator Rubio, a declared opponent of diplomacy with Cuba to gain his release, now pledging his allegiance to the cause of anti-isolationism. Or that Rep. Ros-Lehtinen, devoted to trade as she is, is also a proudly committed obstacle to a deal swapping the remainder of the Cuban Five to secure his freedom.

It is diplomacy, not irony, that will lead to his release.

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The Roar of the Lion, and the Sound of a Whisper

September 12, 2014

Dear Friends:

When President Obama described our role in assembling the coalition the United States will lead into war, he called it “America at its best.”

But, when a State Department spokesperson took a question about U.S. cooperation with Cuba on an issue of “security and safety,” she reacted like a character in Harry Potter reluctant to say Voldemort, because “We do not speak his name.”

The backstory, reported below in greater detail, involves a private plane flying from upstate New York to Naples, Florida that lost contact with air traffic controllers. As it headed off its flight plan, two F-15 fighter jets were sent to investigate “an unresponsive aircraft [then] flying over the Atlantic Ocean.” Three persons were unresponsive and presumed dead before the plane crashed into the seas off Jamaica, after flying through Cuba’s airspace.

It should have come as no surprise that U.S. authorities were in contact with their Bahamian and Cuban counterparts. “Obviously,” Marie Harf said at the State Department podium, “this is an issue of security and safety, and so we were in touch as well.”

Nor was it a secret. The FAA had already gone on record with a policy statement, “FAA International Strategies 2010-2014, Western Hemisphere Region,” outlining its objectives relating to Cuba:

  • Work closely with the Department of Transportation (DOT), Department of State (DOS) and other U.S. Government agencies to support the Administration’s Cuba initiatives and policies as well as FAA mission critical operations.
  • Negotiate for the sharing of radar data with key partners adjacent to U.S. delegated airspace: Bahamas, Canada, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Haiti, Mexico, Saint Maarten.
  • Continue to work with the DOS to facilitate safety-critical operational meetings between the FAA and Cuban air traffic officials on a regular basis.

Yet, the terse answers to questions about the plane incident, and if it could be a model for future cooperation, sounded like the State Department was protecting state secrets. Read the full transcript of the briefing here and judge for yourselves.

For example, when Ms. Harf was asked about the flight incident, she offered a sparse 68-word recitation of the facts, before quickly referring reporters to NORAD and the FAA. After saying, “We have been in touch” with Cuba and the Bahamas, she replied, “I don’t have more details on those conversations,” and never mentioned the FAA’s strategy, publicly released in 2010.

As the reporter pressed further on whether the kind of cooperation that took place on the flight could expand to other “issues of national interest, like … security in the region,” she responded with boilerplate about talks on postal service and migration, but concluded, “I don’t have more for you on that issue than that.”

Apparently, there’s a fine line between putting together a Middle East coalition, an occasion to trumpet national pride, and an example of healthy cooperation with Cuba, which got little more than a meek mention at State.

It’s hard not to notice the contrast. CBS News labeled nations in the coalition as “frenemies” of the United States. As the State Department reported this year, citizens living in at least one of those nations, “lack the right and legal means to change their government; [face] pervasive restrictions on universal rights such as freedom of expression, including on the internet, and freedom of assembly, association, movement, and religion; and a lack of equal rights for women, children, and noncitizen workers.”

While the Administration has engaged with Cuba effectively, on a limited basis and in discrete areas like migration, environment, drug interdiction, and law enforcement, the White House and State Department prefer to keep these activities hidden below-the-radar, as if Parental Discretion was advised in their dealings with the American people.

The U.S. can and should do more. As we said in “9 Ways for US to Talk to Cuba and for Cuba to Talk to US,” it would be in the U.S. national interest to work with Cuba openly and closely on counterterrorism, military affairs, greater exchanges among scientists and artists and the like, while also developing what the countries have lacked for so long: a language for their diplomacy based on engagement instead of preconditions.

Doing this would reflect the values of Cubans and Americans alike. Such public diplomacy would also strengthen those in Cuba who take risks by supporting reform at home and engagement with the U.S. abroad.

Yes, this will be opposed by Members of the U.S. Congress who conflate engagement with appeasement. But, whispering about working with Cuba has never gotten them to stand down, and it never will.

So we say, stop whispering; engage more, unabashedly. If the Administration used its remaining time to make a more forceful commitment to diplomacy with Cuba, that would give all of us something to shout about.

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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 »


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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If Cuba policy were a holiday call center

December 21, 2012

If Cuba policy were a holiday call center, the recording on your phone would be saying, “The next available customer representative will assist you in 50 years.”

So, who can you reach when things just aren’t right?

Who do you call when Cuba releases political prisoners, removes restrictions on its citizens to travel, opens up its private sector so that entrepreneurs can lead more prosperous, independent lives, but your government moves the goal posts and signals that just because Cuba met its last set of demands that won’t stop the U.S. imposing new hurdles rather than changing the policy?

Who do you call when Cuba is brokering the peace process between Colombia and the FARC, but the U.S. government continues to insist that Cuba belongs on the State Sponsors of Terror list because it allows representatives of the FARC to live in Cuba?

Who do you call when every other country in the Hemisphere says we must welcome Cuba into the next Summit of the Americas or that meeting isn’t going to happen, and the State Department – in charge, after all, of relationships with our allies in the region –pretends that call for action never happened?

Who do you call when several of the most respected Cuban scholars get turned down for visas to attend the Latin America Studies Association conference for being threats to national security, when they’ve been invited into the U.S. on multiple occasions by the same agency denying entry?

Who do you call when taxpayer money subsidizes slimy attacks against Cuba’s Catholic Cardinal written by an executive of Radio/TV Marti when the church in Cuba is fighting for the same values that our government says it is upholding with its policy?

Who do you call if you’re Chuck Hagel, an apparent candidate for Secretary of Defense, when you’re getting trashed for thinking outside the box on foreign policy issues from the Middle East to the U.S. embargo of Cuba (and he hears mostly crickets from the White House)?

Who do you call if you facilitate legal travel to Cuba, as the President tried to encourage with his reforms last year, but another arm of the U.S. government is freezing payments and menacing Internet companies who service your website and email?

These are only a few of our hang-ups from the last twelve months.

As we have lamented – and admitted – before, the administration never accorded Cuba (or Latin America) policy a terribly high priority, and it has its hands full right now taking on the lobbies that are fighting progress on our economy and on gun safety.  We get that.

The president already has ample executive authority to make changes–as common place as making it easier to sell food to Cuba, and as big as removing Cuba from the State Sponsors of Terrorism List–that could go a long way toward disconnecting his policy from the Cold War and modernizing our approach to the circumstances that prevail now.

He just needs to answer the call of history.

If he did, that would be a great holiday gift to the American people and the Cuban people – who have been on hold for the better part of six decades.

We are taking next week off.  We look forward to bringing you the news about Cuba and U.S. policy in 2013.

Peace.

The Cuba Central News Blast Team

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On Mother’s Day in Havana and Washington

May 11, 2012

In the U.S., Mother’s Day is a hallmark of our spring calendar, so we wanted to wish a happy holiday to every mother who reads and enjoys the weekly blast.

As you will read below, the organization called Save the Children has released its annual Mothers Index Rating and has once again listed Cuba as the best country in Latin America for mothers.

This will undoubtedly excite an exaggerated reaction from those who can’t stand seeing Cuba presented in a normal or flattering light.

After the New York Times published its piece earlier this month titled “Cuba May Be the Most Feminist Country in Latin America,” the heavy armor was rolled out.  While reasonable men and women of good will disagree about life and living conditions in Cuba, a discussion of the facts simply couldn’t be allowed to stand.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen called women “the biggest victims of the Cuban regime,” the author and others holding this view were labeled as apologists, the perspective called “unspeakable,” the New York Times didn’t just publish the article, it ‘squealed,’ etc.

One can only imagine the hail storm that awaits Save the Children.

But this week the hardliners didn’t own the monopoly on absurdity.   Special credit was earned by the U.S. State Department which publicly rejected an offer by Cuba to negotiate with the United States on a broad range of issues, including the Alan Gross case.

Mr. Gross, imprisoned in Cuba since December 2009, for his work in a USAID-funded regime change program, and sentenced to 15 years in prison, pleaded for a brief release to visit his mother, aged ninety, who is suffering from cancer – a Mother’s Day gift they could both enjoy – and made his case in a telephone interview with CNN.

Reacting to the interview, Josefina Vidal, a top Cuban Foreign Ministry official, said that while Cuba was ready to engage in a dialogue with the U.S. on Mr. Gross’s case, Havana wanted “to sit down at the negotiating table with Washington to discuss all outstanding issues in an effort to establish normal relations,” according to CBS News.

Rather than seizing the initiative, the State Department “reacted sharply,” saying Vidal’s statement confirmed its belief that Mr. Gross is a hostage and there is no justification for his continued imprisonment.

Meanwhile, the New York Times reported that the Obama administration is negotiating with the Taliban on a prisoner exchange that could free an American soldier held hostage in Afghanistan.

Leaving us to wonder what principle is at stake when U.S. decides who to talk to about what.

Our policy of not talking directly to Cuba on subjects core to the national interest, such as protecting our shared environment against an oil spill, or as central to our humanitarian interests as freeing a pawn in our Cold War efforts to topple the Cuban government, both of which we discuss below, might be good politics in some precincts, but it’s a substantial and damaging  failure to communicate.

Our mothers never would approve of that.

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