Holiday Edition: Memorial Day, Obama, and Cuba

May 24, 2013

Dear Friends:

This weekend in the U.S., we celebrate Memorial Day.  Started in 1868, following the Civil War,  this holiday has served as an annual remembrance of the nation’s war dead.  Flowers and American flags are placed at grave sites of service members who were casualties in the nation’s wars.  It was first called “Decoration Day.”

President Barack Obama spoke on the eve of the Memorial Day weekend at the National War College on U.S. counter-terrorism strategy.

The speech, available in full here, is summarized in a New York Times editorial The End of the Perpetual War, which reads in part:

For the first time, a president stated clearly and unequivocally that the state of perpetual warfare that began nearly 12 years ago is unsustainable for a democracy and must come to an end in the not-too-distant future.

Of course, no counter-terrorism speech by a U.S. president, even one about dismantling some of the dangerous policies his administration inherited from its predecessor, would be complete without a list of interventions, swords and ploughshares, which will remain active parts of U.S. foreign policy going forward.

But, of critical interest to us, Mr. Obama also said the following:

  • Now is the moment to ask hard questions about the nature of today’s threats and how we should confront them, because what we do affects our standing in the world and our vital interests in the region.
  • He warned that “Unless we discipline our thinking, our definitions, our actions, we may be drawn into more wars we don’t need to fight, or continue to grant Presidents unbound powers more suited for traditional armed conflicts between nation states.”
  • He quoted James Madison, our fourth president, who said “No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”
  • Most of all, he defined the current threat as “lethal yet less capable al Qaeda affiliates; threats to diplomatic facilities and businesses abroad; homegrown extremists. This is the future of terrorism.”

Tellingly, in a speech that ran to nearly seven-thousand words and defined the future of counter-terrorism policy, President Obama never mentioned “Cuba”.  Not once.

And yet, this is the same President Obama who decided to keep Cuba on the State Sponsors of Terrorism list for the thirty-first consecutive year.  The same president who – we are now told – is excluding from entry into the United States some of Cuba’s most important scholars so they cannot attend a meeting of the Latin American Studies Association in Washington next week.  Some states of perpetual war, as George Orwell might have said, are more equal than others.

Just a year after Decoration Day was first celebrated, African-Americans in Baltimore turned out for a demonstration.  As the Baltimore Sun reported, “A procession including the Sons of Gideon, Lincoln Rangers and the Hannibal Club formed in downtown Baltimore and marched to the cemetery under the banner held aloft by Capt. William H. Butler that proclaimed, ‘Give us equal rights and we will protect ourselves.’”

By turning out to remind their city of the wartime sacrifices by all soldiers, black and white, they expressed their democratic faith in an effort to make their country better.

On the eve of this Memorial Day, we simply express the hope that when the subject of Cuba and the terror list next arises, President Obama will remember the remarks he delivered at a time when he set politics aside and apparently said what he actually believes.

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Climate Change and Cuba

March 22, 2013

There is a scientific consensus that climate change is real.  Not everyone agrees, but the people who don’t believe it are answering to an awfully scornful title: climate change deniers.

Since assuming leadership in 2006, following the illness of his brother, President Raúl Castro initiated a gradual process to update the nation’s economic model and loosen restrictions on the Cuban people.

Restrictions on cell phone ownership, access to tourist hotels, ownership of computers and DVD players, the ability to rent a car, sell real property, travel and return to the island, have ended or begun to fall away.  A process involving Raúl Castro, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, and the government of Spain provided for the release of high profile political prisoners, including the remainder of those confined from a round-up that took place in 2003.  Some 400,000 Cubans have taken the opportunity to open small businesses in newly legalized professionals.  The former Pope Benedict XVI, who was warmly received in Cuba last year, spent part of his visit inspecting the San Carlos and Ambrosio Seminary, “the first building that Cuba’s government has allowed the Catholic Church to build since the 1959 revolution.”

Cuba is not the multi-party democracy the U.S. has been demanding it become at the point of a spear since 1959.

Even so, the idea that any reform was taking place in Cuba has been too foreign for many in the U.S. to accept, so it’s been dismissed in recent years, much like evidence of rising temperatures and catastrophic storms could not persuade some people to worry about the weather.

Reform in Cuba, however, has just gotten a lot harder to deny.  Consider, for example, Yoani Sánchez, Cuba’s dissident blogger, now visiting the U.S. in the midst of an 80-day world tour. What’s she doing here anyway?  Reform deniers were absolutely certain she wouldn’t get a visa when Cubans’ travel rights changed.  Well, as former Congressman Bill Delahunt wrote in The Hill this week, “it is now easier for Yoani to visit our country, than it is for most Americans to visit hers.”

Free to speak her mind on U.S. soil, is Yoani denying that changes are taking place in Cuba? Quite the opposite.  In fact, she told an audience at New York University that “Irreversible change” is transforming Cuba, because independent bloggers and democracy activists are forcing Raul Castro’s government to evolve. “Cuba is changing,” she said, “but not because of Raul’s reforms. Forget that.”

This line of thought clearly engaged the Washington Post, which wrote after she visited the newspaper:  “Cuba has lately seen some economic reforms and liberalizations; one of them allowed Ms. Sánchez to travel freely abroad for the first time. But she told us the real change in Cuba today is not from the top but rather from below.”

Serious analysts like Arturo López-Levy say it’s “nonsense” that conditions are changing in Cuba without the Cuban government changing its policies.

True, but there’s a larger point: For Yoani, the Post, and others, the question is different; it’s moved from “is reform even happening in Cuba?” to “who is responsible for the changes underway?”

That’s a huge and important shift.  The hardliners know it and they don’t like it.  Capitol Hill Cubans angrily labels the reforms “fraudulent change.” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen calls her colleagues in Congress “Castro apologists” because they support lifting restrictions on Cuba.

Theirs is the language of denial.  They may be out in the snow and the rain stomping their feet in anger, but the debate on Cuba – like the weather – has really changed.

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