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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On the freedom to travel

October 5, 2012

For months, supporters of people-to-people travel to Cuba, renewed by President Obama in 2011, feared the administration was burying the program in paperwork, stalling license renewals, and could even end it, due to unyielding election year pressure by opponents who always have opposed the freedom to travel.

At least for now, these worst fears may not be realized.   As USA Today reports, “the trips appear to be back on track,” and cites the renewal of Insight Cuba’s license which plans to offer more than 100 departures from now through 2013.

When it comes to Cuba policy, nothing seems to be permanent, and this good news is no guarantee against future reversals. Still, it might be a good time to think about how we get from where we were – to where we are now—to where we might be going.

President Obama came to office with a pledge to end punishing Bush-era restrictions on travel.  In 2009, he provided unlimited travel rights to Cuban American family members, and two years later offered broader changes:  opening up people-to-people travel, restoring non-family remittances, and giving more airports in the U.S. the opportunity to serve the Cuban market.

This was not the full freedom to travel to Cuba that most Americans support (in fact, we support the freedom to travel for citizens of both countries), but these changes in U.S. policy were meaningful to a lot of people.

Cuban dissidents embraced the changes.  The Catholic Bishops issued a statement of support as did Human Rights Watch. Educators celebrated the restoration of travel following Bush era restrictions that cut the number of U.S. students studying in Cuba from 2,000 to 60.

Even the head of the Cuban-American National Foundation, once the center of support for the embargo, released a statement endorsing the President’s actions: “It is significant that these measures do not represent a concession to the Castro regime, but rather form part of a continuing series of unilateral measures that the US is taking which demonstrate a concern for the well-being of ordinary folks.”

But the hardliners were buying none of it.  Before the reforms were announced, Senator Marco Rubio said on Spanish language radio that he’d educate his colleagues and rally Congress to block them.  Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz said the new rules “will pump much-needed money into the desperate Cuban economy, boosting the Castro regime.”  Senators Rubio and Menendez prepared an amendment in the U.S. Senate to derail the changes.  Rep. David Rivera authored legislation to repeal travel rights and to stop green card holders from visiting the island.  Exile critics even denounced family members for traveling to Cuba by sponging off their welfare payments.

Their activities culminated in votes by Congress to repeal the family travel and people-to-people rules.   After hardliners threatened to use a 2012 budget bill to cut off travel, President Obama issued a rare statement promising a veto if it reached his desk.

Thwarted in efforts to move legislation, critics directed their fire at the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).  They accused OFAC of weakening the rules.  They started a Congressional investigation of trips by the Smithsonian Institution.  After some providers of the new services used language in their ads inconsistent with rules against tourism, OFAC issued an advisory to get them to pay attention.

Late in 2011, Senator Rubio in an angry floor speech denounced the trips as “an outrage. They’re grotesque.  And they’re providing hard currency to a regime that oppresses its people, who jails people because they disagree with the government.”  To exert more pressure on travel, he out a temporary hold blocking the nomination of Roberta Jacobson to serve as Obama’s Assistant Secretary for Latin America.  She was confirmed, but then OFAC tightened the rules.

The new restrictions put in place last May required organizers to provide detailed itineraries of every trip and to explain how activities would “enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society, and/or help promote the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities.”

As license approvals slowed to a crawl, the program looked in real jeopardy, and nothing would change until at least after the election.  So, it is a relief to read now, as the Los Angeles Times reports, “American travel to Cuba…may soon be surging again.”

We’ll know more in about four weeks.  Governor Romney promises to repeal the travel reforms.  His advisors include Ray Walser of the Heritage Foundation, who wrote recently “More liberal guidelines for travel by non–Cuban Americans allows thousands the chance to smoke Cuban cigars, dance a Cuban rumba, visit Old Havana, or indulge in sexual tourism,” Eric Edelman, a former national security aide to Vice President Cheney, and Richard S. Williamson, who organized opposition to Cuba working for the Reagan Administration at the U.N. and who still refers to Russia as “The Soviet Union” twenty years after the end of the Cold War.

Here, in the U.S., the travel saga continues, and it could go either way.

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And Justice for Some

September 14, 2012

We open this week with a story about justice, one that will have special resonance for those who remember victims of atrocity and terror in the 1970s and the 1980s, and for others whose accounts have not yet been settled.

On September 11, a retired Salvadoran military officer with the curious name Inocente Orlando Montano admitted to the crime of lying to U.S. immigration officials.  But Inocente’s guilt involves far greater offenses than living illegally in the Boston area for the last decade.

Colonel Montano is connected to numerous killings, but in particular to one of the most infamous human rights crimes of the many committed during El Salvador’s civil war:  the 1989 massacre of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter. A United Nations Truth Commission investigation of the massacre placed Montano “in all the meetings in which the assassination was discussed, planned, and ordered,” news accounts said. He also was a key player in covering up the role of the military’s high command in the crime.

In May 2011, a Spanish judge indicted twenty suspects in the Jesuit murders, Montano among them.  He is now, finally, at risk of extradition to Spain to face legal accountability for his actions, along with 19 other suspects.  The Center for Justice and Accountability, which filed the case in Spain, tracked Montano down in Everett, MA; Immigration and Customs Enforcement authorities determined that he had lied repeatedly about his past on legal forms to qualify for a temporary protected immigration status offered to those who cannot safely return to their own countries. This protection status was supposed to be for victims, not victimizers.  That he is a few steps closer to justice and a few steps further away from his anonymous unaccountable life is a miracle worth savoring.

And yet, 1500 miles away in Miami a terrorist named Luis Posada Carriles, who also lied his way into this country, continues to walk free.  Posada is identified in declassified FBI and CIA reports as the mastermind of the October 1976 midair bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed all 73 people aboard.  He has openly admitted orchestrating seven bombings of tourist hotels in Havana in 1997 and 1998, killing a 32-year old Italian businessman and wounding 11 others. In November 2000, he was arrested, then convicted and served prison time in Panama for a plot to blow up Fidel Castro and many other people in an auditorium.  After all of this, he made his way into the U.S., entering illegally, and then lied to authorities under oath about how he got here, and about his past involvement in terrorism.  Although the Justice Department prosecuted him for immigration fraud, he was acquitted at a trial in El Paso, Texas, last year.

When he was incarcerated before his trial, ICE officials formally labeled him “a danger to both the community and national security of the United States.” Yet today, that “danger” is free to strolls the streets of Florida. Although the Obama administration has a number of recourses to hold him accountable for his violent past, including extraditing him to Venezuela or designating him a terrorist under the provisions of the Patriot Act and detaining him indefinitely, there are no signs of judicial activity in his case. It is, after all, an election year in which Florida is a significant swing state.

Justice, as well as the credibility of this administration’s commitment to fighting terrorism, requires that action be taken to hold Posada accountable for his many violent crimes. As the case of Col. Montano demonstrates, where there is a will, there is a way. We will have to wait until after November 7th to find out if justice for some will move toward justice for all.

Note: More information on the case of Luis Posada Carriles can be found in this article by Peter Kornbluh published by the Nation and at the website of the National Security Archive.

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