Ending the Embargo: Can “Brand America” Bail Obama Out?

September 26, 2014

Not a great week for President Obama or his resilient support for the U.S. embargo against Cuba.

With heads of state and government gathering at the United Nations for the 69th Session of the General Assembly, Juan Manuel Santos, President of Colombia, and Salvador Sánchez Cerén, President of El Salvador, spoke out strongly against the U.S. embargo.

Santos said, “I have faith that the United States and Cuba can form a working relationship that allows the United States to lift the embargo that from my point of view has failed.”

In his first General Assembly speech as president, Sánchez Cerén said, “In the pursuit of peace efforts, and of equitable development there is no place for the disdain of fundamental principles and freedoms which is found in the economic, trade and financial blockade against the sister republic of Cuba.”

These strong words, coming from leaders of America’s staunchest allies in the hemisphere, merely echo what has already been said by influential foreign policy voices – like Hillary Clinton, Yoani Sánchez and, yes, John Oliver.

Earlier this year, former Secretary of State Clinton described to Jorge Ramos why she now favors lifting the embargo.

“I think it has propped up the Castros because they can blame everything on the embargo…You don’t have freedom of speech, you don’t have freedom of expression, you know, you’re still having political prisoners, everything is blamed on the embargo.”

Yoani Sánchez, the Cuban dissident, who has gone from communicating with the outside world with flash drives, to winning a Yahoo! fellowship at Georgetown University, wants the U.S. to end the embargo for a similar reason.

“I come from a generation of Cubans that have grown up with an official discourse constantly running through my ears that has expertly used the embargo as its foremost excuse — blamed for everything from the lack of food on our plates to the lack of liberty in the streets.”

Commenting on President Obama’s decision this month to extend Cuba’s status as the only nation on Earth subject to trade sanctions under the World WWI-era Trading with the Enemy Act, John Oliver told his HBO audience this week:

“Cubans blame the embargo for everything — the economy, the weather, the complete collapse of Homeland in its second season which, to be fair, Cubans probably haven’t seen but if they do they’ll hate it and they’ll blame the embargo for it.”

Clinton, Sánchez, and Oliver make a point President Obama has not fully absorbed; namely, it’s possible to have differences with Cuba’s government, political system, and economy and still see that the embargo, started by the Kennedy Administration and held together by a law enacted in 1917, has completely “failed.”

If the President wanted to consider a “newer” approach, he might read the remarks on Burma by Charles H. Rivkin, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Economic and Business Affairs.

As you may know, our State Department is extremely critical of Burma’s systemic human rights abuses, extrajudicial killings, restrictions on speech, press, assembly, association, religion, and movement, and for its 45 prisons, 100 government labor camps, and 60,000 prisoners.

In Burma, however, Rivkin sees no place for an embargo. He’s heard “what American companies faced — or have faced in the wake of sanctions. They range from other foreign investors taking advantage of our absence to our own reporting requirements.”

Instead, he believes the U.S. business community – representing “Brand America” – will help take Burma where it needs to go: “towards a more connected, vibrant, and prosperous future.”

He argues this: “When people buy American, they buy into our values and beliefs as well as our culture of practicality and trust in the open market.”

Admittedly, this is the homeliest argument we’ve heard for ending sanctions and promoting U.S. investment in countries whose political systems we oppose. But, if the President buys it and applies it to Burma, he should seize it as a rationale for ending the embargo of Cuba — particularly now.

In the next few weeks, the UN General Assembly will turn its attention to Cuba, where resolutions condemning the embargo have been adopted by increasingly lopsided margins for 22 consecutive years.

As John Oliver observed Sunday night, “It’s been a while since Cuba was a genuine threat, and by continuing the embargo, we’re not just pissing them off, we’re pissing off almost the entire world.”

We can’t do any worse than the vote in 2013, which the U.S. lost by 188-2, even after the U.S. has spent the last year cranking up the embargo machinery against many of our closest allies.

But why even try?

If “Brand America” can ride to the President’s rescue, he should probably saddle it up.

Read the rest of this entry »


No Introduction

May 9, 2014

“Let me now introduce someone who needs no introduction.”

It is a weird custom of the Washington windbag to follow sentences like this with a lengthy introduction of the next speaker.

Normally, this is pointless, since that person is most often well-known to everyone within the sound of the speaker’s voice, but the introduction is made nonetheless.

In that spirit, we’d like to begin the News Blast this week with some introductions of our own.

Let’s start with Assistant Secretaries of State Roberta Jacobson and Tom Malinowski who, as McClatchy reported, testified this week against imposing punitive economic sanctions on Venezuela.

Jacobson, who spoke for State’s Western Hemisphere Affairs Bureau, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that hitting Venezuela’s government with sanctions as a tactic to cool its political crisis “would serve to reinforce a narrative of the Venezuelan government standing up to the United States — rather than the Venezuelan people standing up for themselves.”

Malinowski, speaking for State’s Human Rights Bureau, added on sanctions:  “They work in some places, they don’t work everywhere. Timing is extremely important.”

These top State Department policymakers who oppose sanctions on Venezuela should discuss their “counterproductive” effects with the people who maintain our fifty-plus year old embargo on the government and people of Cuba.

While we’re at it, let’s also introduce the State Department policymakers who track Cuba on the fight against illegal drugs and terrorism.

In March, when the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs released a report giving high marks to Cuba’s counter-narcotics efforts, it said “Cuba demonstrates increasing willingness to apprehend and turn over U.S. fugitives and to assist in U.S. judicial proceedings by providing documentation, witnesses and background for cases in U.S. state and federal Courts.”

Yet, barely one month later, when the Bureau of Counterterrorism released the 2013 Report on the State Sponsors of Terror, it said “The Cuban government continued to harbor fugitives wanted in the United States” to justify keeping Cuba on the list.

Different fugitives, we know.  But, shouldn’t these guys talk?

Our last introduction is for Secretary of State, John Kerry, who gave a speech about the importance of entrepreneurship at a gathering of the Council of the Americas this week.  At the end, he zeroed in on Cuba.

Secretary Kerry is worried that the Cuban people will “continue to be left behind (economically) as the rest of the hemisphere advances,” unless more can be done to strengthen “the emerging micro-entrepreneurial sector in Cuba.”

There is no shortage of ideas for stimulating more economic activity in Cuba.  One came from Gary Becker, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, a staunch conservative and an anti-communist.  In March, Becker, who died this week, wrote: “It is time to end the embargo on the export and import of goods and services between the United States and Cuba. The Cuban people will benefit almost immediately.”

Also this week, the Boston Globe, Secretary Kerry’s hometown newspaper, made the political case for economic engagement with Cuba:

“There’s a reason why the United States doesn’t normally cut all ties to countries with repressive regimes. Economic engagement can be as powerful, or more powerful, a force for change than isolation. It doesn’t erase tensions with offending regimes, but rather puts more pressure on them. It expresses to the people living under the regime a desire for cooperation; opportunities to better understand each other; and a closer look at American-style freedoms and democracy.”

Despite these powerful arguments — that ending economic sanctions would provide Cubans with greater economic opportunity and the chance for greater freedoms, just as Secretary Kerry said he wanted in his speech — there’s a catch.   To accomplish these goals, we’d have to introduce him to the same person who kept Cuba on the State Sponsors of Terror List and who will not advocate publicly for increased travel and trade opportunities for Americans and Cubans.

By now, we’re sure you’re on to us.  There is a reason the Venezuela sanctions people don’t need an introduction to the Cuba Sanctions people, or the officials tracking drug fugitives to the policy makers who keep the terror list, or the supporters of microenterprise to the supporters of economic sanctions.

They’re all the same guys.  A lot of them smart and really good people.

It is the problem that needs no introduction, familiar to all within the sound of our voice.

Until our leaders confront the hardliners in Congress and the political culture that keeps these irrational, inconsistent, and ineffective policies in place, they’ll just go on behaving like people who’ve never met.

Read the rest of this entry »


From the Bay of Pigs to the Bay of Tweets

April 18, 2014

Yesterday, The John F. Kennedy Library posted a “JFK in History” piece to mark the 53rd anniversary of what it called “a botched invasion at the Bay of Pigs on the south coast of Cuba.”

The invasion was a CIA covert operation with the goal of overthrowing the Castro government.  Kennedy was determined to conceal U.S. support for the operation and, as the entry explains, the “landing point at the Bay of Pigs was part of the deception.”  In the days before April 17th, the operation was exposed, American support for the invasion was revealed, and the small army composed largely of Cuban exiles was defeated.

It is no accident of history that ZunZuneo, the faux “Cuban Twitter” program revealed this month by the Associated Press, has been ridiculed in headlines as “The Bay of Tweets.”  Fifty-three years later, the United States is still engaged in activities to overthrow Cuba’s government, and still misusing the dark arts of government secrecy and deniability to obscure them, with consequences so familiar, it is as if a new generation of public officials has arrived at positions of power ignorant of their own country’s history.

In the 1970s, The Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, led by Senator Frank Church, was formed to review a series of efforts to overthrow foreign governments, spy on U.S. citizens, and conceal those activities from the Congress and the American people.  Time and again, the Committee invoked the Bay of Pigs as evidence of the damage that is inflicted on our national security and the U.S. system by excessive reliance on secrecy.

As the Committee wrote in its final report:

“The task of democratic government is to reconcile conflicting values…Reliance on covert action has been excessive because it offers a secret shortcut around the democratic process.  This shortcut has led to questionable foreign involvements and unacceptable acts…Finally, secrecy has been a tragic conceit.  Inevitably, the truth prevails, and policies pursued on the premise that they could be plausibly denied, in the end damage America’s reputation and the faith of her people in their government.”  Final Report, Page 16.

Following the report, Congress established a more formal system of oversight over intelligence activities and strengthened the legal requirements for the White House and executive branch agencies to report intelligence activities and covert actions.

Fast forward from the Bay of Pigs and the Church Committee to ZunZuneo, and you can see why some reporters are following the scandal so closely and why experts like Professor Bill LeoGrande have directly challenged repeated government denials that the program was covert:

“USAID’s ZunZuneo program meets the two key definitional attributes of a covert action: it was intended to influence Cuban politics, and the U.S. government’s role was intentionally hidden.”

In the earlier stages of the story, USAID flatly denied that ZunZuneo had any intent to influence Cuba’s politics.  As the AP reported, when Senator Patrick Leahy asked administrator Rajiv Shah whether its goal was to “influence political conditions abroad” or “to encourage popular opposition to the Cuban government,” Shah replied “No, that is not correct.”

Once AP published patently political text messages from ZunZuneo that contradicted Dr. Shah’s testimony, the State Department started ducking questions at its daily briefing from reporters asking for an inventory of the text messages.

Indeed, on April 9April 11April 14, and April 17, when reporters asked questions like “How goes the USAID review of these allegedly political text messages?,” the answer from the State Department has been Nothing new to report today,” “I would encourage you to check in with my colleagues at USAID,” and, “I don’t have any updates from here. I know they’re looking into it.”

Such evasions can’t really work when the facts point so strongly to covert actions that should have been reported to the Congress.  As Peter Kornbluh explained in an interview to Jeremy Bigwood:  “Zunzuneo had all the components of a classic covert action: shell companies, off-shore bank accounts, managerial cutouts, multinational locations, the goal of regime change, and, of course, the hidden hand of the United States government.”

Therefore, as Bill LeoGrande writes, “under the law (50 U.S. Code § 3093 (a)), [it] required a presidential finding and notification of the Congressional intelligence committees. Those obligations do not appear to have been met.”

And so we have our Bay of Tweets: another covert action, another effort to conceal the truth from the American people, another deceit in our endless mission to bring democracy to Cuba.

But, more than lies lie in the balance.  As Gary Hart, a member of the Church Committee, wrote a few years ago:

“A democracy that violates the rights and privacy of its citizens and conceals its activities from them edges dangerously near something other than a democracy.  The most radical of our founders, Thomas Jefferson, held that the best guarantor of the American republic was the good judgment and common sense of the American people, a people fully informed of the activities of its government on their behalf.”

Read the rest of this entry »


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.

Read the rest of this entry »


Let the ends justify the means

March 7, 2014

“That is an absolute lie.”

This is what Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart told the New York Times, after its correspondent, Damien Cave said “clearly a majority” of the American public supports a change in policy in Cuba.

Except it’s not a lie. The American public made up its mind years ago that the embargo ought to go. The results Mr. Díaz-Balart questioned from last month’s Atlantic Council poll weren’t off the mark; their results track just what Florida International University found in its 2011 poll and numerous others have, before and since.

Rep. Díaz-Balart disparaged the Council’s survey just as he did in February, using the same language Elliot Abrams used  on Valentine’s Day; how Robin Wapner described the poll in the Los Angeles Times today. They call it a “push poll.”

Except, it wasn’t.  Why would Glen Bolger, the highly-respected Republican pollster of Public Opinion Strategies — who’s worked for the Florida Republican Party, Governor Jeb Bush, the Florida Chamber of Commerce, and the Wall Street Journal — produce a survey that rattled the embargo establishment and relied on what experts call  “an unethical political campaign technique… masquerading as legitimate political polling.” Why would he do that? [Hint:  he didn’t.]

Then there’s the case of Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, who delivered a speech on the Senate floor after visiting  Cuba for a trip that examined “the strengths and weaknesses of Cuba’s public health system.”  This was not Harkin’s first trip to the island; he first visited Guantánamo as an active duty Navy jet pilot during Vietnam, flying missions in support of U-2 planes that spied on Cuba.

This was too much for Senator Marco Rubio (neither a veteran nor a visitor to Cuba), who gave a floor speech that  “ripped” Harkin, “destroyed” Harkin, “blasted” Harkin, and “unloaded” on Harkin, as his blogosphere fans said, for using what Rubio called unreliable statistics provided by Cuba’s government to admire the country’s infant mortality rate.

Except, Harkin was right.  There are many statistics used to measure Cuba’s health system that are accepted globally — for example, to demonstrate that Cuba has fulfilled the primary education, gender equality, and child mortality Millennium Development Goals, or to gauge Cuba’s progress in achieving national literacy, expanding life expectancy, and reducing infant mortality, as the World Economic Forum has done.  This doesn’t mean the figures should not be debated, they should; but it’s hard to dismiss them outright.

Next, consider Cuba’s economic reforms.  More than ten percent of state jobs — close to 600,000 thousands positions — have been eliminated since 2009.   Estimates vary, but at least 450,000 Cubans can now work in private sector jobs because of liberalizations championed by President Raúl Castro.  This is a big change for Cuba, as we reported in Cuba’s New Resolve, and published this year on what the reforms mean for Cuban women.

We also hosted five Cuban nationals on a trip to the U.S.  last year, who explained to the Washington policy community how the ability to start a business, employ other Cubans, make more money, and take their own decisions gives them greater ownership over their lives.  Cuban-Americans in Florida sense that too; as the New York Times documented this week, “Some Who Fled Cuba Are Returning to Help,” they are sending investment capital, sharing business expertise, and promoting bilateral engagement – many after spending decades fighting the Castro government.

The naysayers about economic reform in Cuba are not the people making the trips to the island, but rather are the elected officials and embargo lobbyists who refuse to go, who won’t concede the Cuban economy is reforming, and who seek instead to maintain the embargo just as it is.  Time and again, when Damien Cave asked about the Cuban-Americans who are traveling to Cuba and helping the reforms along, Rep. Díaz-Balart answered his question with a defense of the embargo.

This is a classic confusion of ends and means.  Even if you support the embargo — we don’t, and we’re part of a large majority that even includes Yoani Sánchez hoping for its demise — what you presumably want is good things for Cuba’s people, not a perpetuation of the embargo for its own sake.  And yet, if economic reform produces more prosperity and choice, or if public opinion among Cuban-Americans has shifted and they want to achieve their vision of Cuba through different means, the response of the hardliners is attack, discredit, rip, blast, and unload.

This strikes us as wrong.  Democracies function better when they debate ideas rather than deny them.  Without accurate information, democratic politics becomes impossible.  If the embargo is more important than that, then what’s the point?

Read the rest of this entry »


Adventures in Exceptionalism

October 25, 2013

We offer these thoughts a few days before the UN General Assembly votes on a resolution condemning the United States for the embargo against Cuba.

“For decades,” journalist Marc Frank reminds us in Cuban Revelations, “Cubans who left the island – especially for the United States – were considered traitors who were joining a foreign power’s attempts to overthrow the nation.”

In Cuba, this was the government’s rationale for restricting the liberties of all Cubans to leave and return to their country as they pleased.  But, a little more than two years ago, President Raúl Castro issued a strong signal that the weather was going to change.

Speaking before Cuba’s National Assembly, Castro said: “Today, the overwhelming number of Cubans are émigrés for economic reasons…What is a fact is that almost all of them maintain their love for the family and the homeland of their birth and, in different ways, demonstrate solidarity toward their compatriots.”

In January of this year, nearly all travel restrictions on Cubans were dismantled. Now, as we have noted previously, Cubans who want to travel to the U.S. face fewer restrictions than nearly all U.S. residents who want to travel to Cuba.  President Obama acted wisely to repeal the harsh restrictions his predecessor imposed on family travel in 2004. Now, the right of Cuban Americans to visit their families on the island is unlimited.  Upwards of 350,000 exercised that right just last year.

The president also reopened channels for people-to-people travel and, as we reported last week, non-Cuban American travel to Cuba has hit peak levels.  But, if you look at the numbers for 2012, you will see that the more than one million Canadians, more than 150,000 travelers from the U.K., and over one-hundred thousand tourists from Germany, Italy, and France exceeded the Americans (98,050) who got to visit Cuba, and none of them had to apply to their governments for a “license” in order to go.  We were the exception.

***

It is not new that the United States is criticized by friend and foe alike.  In October, however, the U.S. image has taken a pounding overseas; and, to be clear, this not a public relations problem.  The drumbeat got louder and more insistent over much larger issues.

Criticism of the U.S. spiked when the U.S. government was shut down, the nation’s credit rating was at risk, and Congress frightened bondholders and contractors with the threat that we would not pay our bills. China called for a “de-Americanized world.” A columnist in The Guardian wrote: “The rottenness of modern Washington makes outsiders gasp.”

Strong stuff, but nothing in comparison to the uproar caused by revelations that the growing global scandal over surveillance by the National Security Agency now encompassed the private communications of 35 world leaders.  This will multiply the backlash the U.S. already felt when Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff cancelled a state visit over reports of U.S. snooping in her country and her private office.

Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel, is especially incensed.  As USA Today reports, she told President Obama that “spying among friends cannot be,” there needs to be trust among allies and partners, and that “such trust now has to be built anew.”

Foreign Policy is reporting that Germany and Brazil are joining forces “to press for the adoption of a U.N. General Resolution that promotes the right of privacy on the Internet,” that would extend the coverage of Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to the online world.

This Article states “no one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his honor and reputation,” and that “everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.”

If the amendment happens what difference will make it?  The U.S. Senate waited sixteen years to adopt the covenant and, when it did so, it added fourteen reservations, understandings, and declarations that so denuded its force that scholars said the U.S. had perpetrated a fraud on the global community.

Two weeks ago, the United States was among 15 member nations scheduled to have their human rights records reviewed by a UN committee in Geneva, and NSA spying was already “slated for discussion.”  But, the U.N. Human Rights Committee cancelled the U.S. review and rescheduled it for March 2014.

“The USA highlights its regret at having to make such a request, which is due to the ongoing government shutdown,” the committee said.  Fourteen other countries were reviewed.  For the U.S., they had to make an exception.

***

On October 29th, when the General Assembly votes on its 22nd resolution to condemn the U.S. embargo on Cuba, the U.S. will again stand virtually alone in asserting the rightness of our views.  In President Obama’s first term, Ambassador Ronald Godard argued that the U.N. had no business even debating the question, because the U.S. had a “sovereign right” to punish Cuba for its political system as part of its bilateral policies.  “Butt out;” he seemed to say, “this is America’s right to do as it pleases.”

This idea, grounded in the notion of American exceptionalism, so pervasive in U.S. foreign policy, combines our faith in the “rightness of our cause” with our overwhelming power.

Recent events demonstrate just how damaging this attitude can be.  It leads this country to impose its will in ways that hurt our interests internationally, harms the alleged beneficiaries locally, and causes them to turn against us politically.

The embargo may seem a small thing to many in the U.S.  It is, in fact, a much larger and more powerful symbol than many understand.  Reversing it will not only help Cubans lead better lives, it could be a small step in a bigger effort to change how the U.S. is perceived and received in the world.  Someday, we hope that President Obama acts to dismantle the embargo, remove all travel restrictions, and put us on course for a normal relationship with Cuba.

It won’t solve all of our problems.  But it would make him truly exceptional.

Read the rest of this entry »