On U.S.-Cuba Relations: Do you believe in the power of ideas?

September 28, 2012

Today, on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley, a conference is taking place titled: Cuba & California, Prospects for Change and Opportunity.

Our colleague, Carlos Alzugaray, a former Cuban diplomat, and until last month a distinguished professor at the University of Havana, was scheduled to give a keynote address today on Prospects for US-Cuban Relations.  Dr. Alzugaray arrived very late, which reveals little about his usual penchant for punctuality and much about the prospects for a changed relationship with Cuba.

Invited to speak at the conference months ago, Dr. Alzugaray applied for his visa and went through the ritualistic process of being interviewed once again by U.S. consular officials in Havana,to justify his reason to visit the United States. He had been a visiting scholar at several U.S. universities over many years, most recently last Fall at City University of New York.  After his multiple inquiries and a long delay, the U.S. Interests Section informed him yesterday morning to expect his visa at noon, giving him just enough time to catch his 4:00 p.m. flight to Miami. By 1:00 there was still no visa, and at 4:30 p.m. he learned there had been an unexplained delay, and the visa would not be available. He went for a walk with his granddaughter and at 5:30 p.m. returned home to learn the visa would be waiting for him at the Interests Section until it closed at 6:00 p.m. A kind consular official waited there until 6:30, and Dr. Alzugaray managed to get on an 8:00 p.m. plane to Miami and an early morning flight to California. Adding insult to this shameful – and at the least incompetent – exercise in disrespect, TSA officers detained the 69-year old professor for three hours when he arrived in Miami.

Another colleague, Rafael Hernández, editor of the internationally acclaimed journal Temas, wasn’t so lucky.  Although he’d been invited to speak at the same conference and applied for a visa at the same time Dr. Alzugaray had applied, Dr. Hernández still has not received notice of whether his visa application has been approved or denied. He had to cancel his trip.

If you think this is bizarre behavior by a country that is deeply critical of the Cuban system, and any restrictions on travel and freedom of expression, we couldn’t agree more.

The battle over U.S.-Cuba relations has been long fought, is deeply complicated, and never works out well during the heat of a presidential election amidst dueling definitions of “American exceptionalism.”

One set of battle lines in this debate, however, seems pretty simple and clear.  One side believes in isolation, blocking Americans from visiting Cuba and stopping Cubans from visiting the U.S.  They don’t want our fellow citizens exposed to the realities of Cuba (the good or the bad) and don’t want Americans hearing speeches by people like Carlos Alzugaray or Rafael Hernández, because they want us to be ignorant of Cuba, its complexity, and prefer us to live with the mysteries and fears dating from the beginning of the Cold War that linger to this day.

That side, centered among the hardest of hardliners in Miami, exerts staggering control over U.S. policy toward the island, and games the system to extend that control, sometimes in peculiar and tawdry ways.  If you don’t believe us, you might read this story from the Miami Herald about the scandal engineered by Rep. David Rivera in his reelection campaign that will astonish those who still refer to publications as “family newspapers.”

The other side believes that Americans are smart enough to figure out Cuba for themselves and ought to be given the opportunity to do so – not only by visiting the island but also by having opportunities, like many should have in Berkeley today to hear Cubans visiting the U.S. speak.  These opinions, incidentally, are increasingly held by Cuban Americans in Miami and elsewhere who are now traveling to Cuba by the hundreds of thousands every year.  Together, this is the side that believes in the power of engagement, debate, and ideas.

So, it came as a surprise and a disappointment to us that someone sitting in Washington, who works for the Obama administration and has the power to approve visa applications, didn’t behave like we were on that side of the engagement versus isolation debate.   Of course, that might change after the election.  Or not.

Read the rest of this entry »


What the FARC is going on in Cuba?

August 31, 2012

What the FARC is going on in Cuba?  And what does it mean for President Obama and the crowd of hardliners in Congress we call the Cold War warriors?

We figured something was up last Sunday, when former Colombian president Alvaro Uribe accused current president Juan Manuel Santos of holding secret peace talks with FARC rebels in Cuba, according to Colombia Reports. “This is incomprehensible,” said Uribe during a speech in the northern Colombian city of Sincelejo, “security deteriorating while the government is negotiating with the FARC terrorist group in Cuba.”

President Santos, who had initially dismissed the allegations as “pure rumors,” confirmed on Monday that the Colombian government has not only been negotiating with the FARC in Havana but that the two parties had agreed to restart formal peace talks, which had collapsed in 2002.

According to foreign sources, here and here, the deal was broken on Cuban soil with help from Venezuelan, Cuban, and Norwegian officials, and the talks are scheduled to commence in Oslo on October 5th. Santos also extended an invitation to the National Liberation Army (ELN) to participate.

Reuters reported that “U.S. President Barack Obama is aware of the process and is in agreement.”

We can’t know now what this breakthrough means for Colombia, although we surely hope it leads to peace.  What we do know is this: Cuba’s contribution to the Colombia deal undercuts a key rationale for U.S. sanctions against the island – with implications both for the anti-Cuba hardliners in Congress and the president himself. The irony is that it was Uribe, a staunch Cold warrior, who helped bring the talks to public attention.

Cuba has long been accused by the U.S. of harboring FARC members. These allegations are one of the State Department’s main justifications for designating Cuba a State Sponsor of Terrorism. The fact that Cuba has been providing neutral ground for a peace agreement between the two parties, however, creates serious problems for the State Department’s rationale for listing Cuba as a state sponsor of terror.

It’s also a blow to the Cold War warriors who use Cuba’s presence on the list to fuel their rhetoric and to oppose any relaxation of U.S. policy. When the Republican Party adopted its foreign policy platform in Tampa, it called Cuba’s government “a mummified relic of the age of totalitarianism (and) a state-sponsor of terrorism.”

The Colombia breakthrough also has implications for President Obama.

When his administration argues in public that having the FARC in Havana is a cause of keeping Cuba on the terror list, even as Mr. Obama approves in private a peace process brokered in Cuba to have the FARC and Colombia sit together to make peace, it damages our nation’s credibility – not just in Latin America but everywhere the U.S. encounters resistance to our policies against terrorism.  It’s a contradiction crying out to be addressed.

And it’s also a terrible position for the winner of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize who was, after all, honored by the Norwegian Nobel Committee “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.”

Early in his administration, President Obama should have taken Cuba off the list as he has been advised so often.  He should not have relisted Cuba every year since.

As naïve as it may be to suggest he act in this election year to remove them, he should consider this:  If the Colombian government has the courage to sit across the table to negotiate peace with the insurgency in its civil war, his administration should at least have the nerve to tell the Cold War warriors in Congress that the facts have changed and he’s removing Cuba from the terror list.

We’re reasonably certain that the hardliners are the only ones who will really care, and their offense will be drowned out by the applause of those who will appreciate a show of guts and the recognition of reality.

Read the rest of this entry »


Deportations for Visiting Cuba?

June 1, 2012

It must be “Kick the Weak Week” in the U.S. Congress.

How else could one explain why Representative David Rivera’s bill, to rescind the residency status of Cubans living in the U.S. if they visit the island, could receive the dignity of a hearing in the Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Enforcement Policy?

This is a uniquely bad piece of legislation.

Under the Cuban Adjustment Act, Cubans who arrive in the U.S. are allowed to remain in the country and can request residency a year after their arrival.  Following this period, they qualify for the liberty –denied almost all U.S. citizens— to visit Cuba freely under the rights restored by President Obama for unlimited family travel.

Rivera – like other hardliners – opposes all travel by anyone to Cuba and has tried various tactics in recent years to stop Cuban Americans from visiting the island.  Last August, he introduced legislation to revoke the residency status of any Cuban who returns to Cuba after receiving political asylum and residency in the United States.

As Rivera unapologetically describes it, “My legislation simply says that any Cuban national who receives political asylum and residency under the Cuban Adjustment Act, and travels to Cuba while still a resident, will have their residency status revoked.”

This sets up a horrible choice for these Cubans living in the U.S.  As Tomas Bilbao, executive director of the Cuba Study Group explained to the Subcommittee, it would “force all Cuban immigrants who want to maintain stable legal status in the United States to give up visiting family in Cuba.”

The group Rivera is targeting is significant.   About 400,000 family visits take place each year.  As Alvaro Fernandez reported in Progreso Weekly, “I asked one of the executives who charters flights to Cuba what percentage of persons would be affected by H.R. 2831. His answer was a startling almost 50% of persons who travel to Cuba are not yet U.S. citizens.”

What is the justification for a law that would stop hundreds of thousands of Cubans from physically being in contact with members of their family in Cuba?

Rivera and his allies make a series of claims that the Cuban Adjustment Act is being abused and they are trying to save it by stopping Cubans living in the U.S. from visiting Cuba.

In his testimony, Rivera said “Increasingly, Cuban-Americans are citing family reunification to justify travel that in reality more closely resembles common tourism and other unauthorized travel involving everything from plastic surgery to fifteens parties and weddings, to even sexual tourism.”

He went on to claim “In many cases, those Cubans traveling are also recipients of U.S. taxpayer-funded welfare programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, Food Stamps, public housing and cash assistance.  In these cases, U.S. taxpayers are actually subsidizing travel to a country that has been designated a sponsor of terrorism by our government.”

Mauricio Claver-Carone of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC advised the Subcommittee in his testimony that some of these individuals were committing immigration fraud saying that Cubans who returned to the island to visit their families could not have come to the U.S. as legitimate refugees from oppression.

This is not about protecting the Cuban Adjustment Act.  It’s not in any danger of repeal.  Nor is this about subsidizing travel to Cuba with Social Security funds; of course, naturalized Cuban-Americans can use their benefits to pay for Cuba travel anytime.  It will come as no surprise that Congressman Rivera himself on his webpage offers to help any senior citizen in his district to determine their Medicare eligibility, and never once refers to this program as “welfare.”

No.  This is a travel ban.  It is simply another backdoor attempt to stop people, any people, from traveling to Cuba.  The targets in this round are entirely vulnerable:  migrants seeking refuge in the U.S.  By definition, they’re not registered voters and they’re mostly powerless, so it’s pretty easy to kick the weak, call them welfare recipients and fraudsters, and threaten them with deportation for the simple and decent act of trying to visit their families.

It’s a travel ban using a pretty heavy stick.  As Rep. Lofgren said, it “turns the act of travel to Cuba into a deportable offense.” She added:

No matter what the reason for stepping foot in Cuba, you lose your status. If you go to visit family members you haven’t seen in years, you lose your status. If you go to attend a funeral or donate a kidney to a dying relative, you lose your status. If you go to meet with Cuban dissidents with the aim of transitioning Cuba to a democracy, you lose your status.

Fortunately, Rep. Lofgren was not alone in her opposition to the bill.  Tomas Bilbao, executive director of the Cuba Study Group, expressed particularly powerful views in his testimony before the panel.   Working the case from the outside were members of CAFÉ, the newly formed Cuban American organization, which wrote the Subcommittee and urged them to defeat the bill.  Progreso Weekly has issued an action alert urging opponents to make their views known to policy makers as well.  Sarah Stephens of the Center for Democracy in the Americas protested the bill in an interview with EFE.  Anya Landau French editorialized against it in the Havana Note.

Ideally, these efforts and others like them will prevent the bill from being enacted.  The legislation is unjust, its aim is to divide families, it is using strong-armed tactics against a weak population that is unrepresented in the U.S. Congress, and it won’t realize its goal – to stop travel and thereby undermine the Cuban system.   But that won’t stop the hardliners from trying.

Read the rest of this entry »