The Post, The Times, and the Cuba Consular Service Cut Off

February 21, 2014

This week, it seemed like the train left the tracks at the Washington Post.

In its editorial, “Cuba’s changes are no more than window dressing,” the editorial board’s routine scolding of Cuba’s government became unusually frenzied when it compared the digital alteration of pictures, removing a hearing aid normally seen in Fidel Castro’s ear, to “the modern day version of Stalinist airbrushing.”

A similar tone of desperation marched into coverage by TV Martí, which recently spent more than 3 minutes of its news broadcast questioning Rep. Kathy Castor’s motives for bringing Cuba’s top diplomat in the U.S., José Ramón Cabañas, to her Tampa, Florida district on a trip that was approved by the U.S. State Department.

We share the wonder of CAFÉ, Cuban Americans for Engagement, when one arm of the United States government, Radio/TV Martí, spends taxpayer money attacking a member of Congress for helping to carry out the policies of the executive branch.

While newspapers in our country don’t speak with one voice – and the Los Angeles Times showed again this week how it whips the Post in its understanding of what’s really happening in Cuba and globally – we do expect clarity and competence from the U.S. government in implementing its policy, and we think it should be called out when it doesn’t meet that standard.

For more than six months, the administration has known that M&T Bank was pulling out of the business of providing financial services to embassies’ consular operations.  While there’s never been a particularly clear explanation for its decision, we do know that M&T – like others in its industry – faced regulatory risks in the post 9/11 environment, and that M&T had a takeover delayed by the Federal Reserve because of its concerns with the bank’s anti-money-laundering compliance program.

Even as the State Department and Cuba’s government have labored to find a financial institution willing to submit to the risks which drove M&T from the business – and thus enable American travelers to Cuba to have their visas processed by the Cuban Interests Section – this is not getting to the larger problem.

We have an incoherent U.S. policy that promotes travel by Americans of Cuban descent and other hand-picked categories of U.S. travelers, but makes it illegal for most other Americans to visit the island; one U.S. policy that identifies travel as a unique means for reaching out to the Cuban people, while others – including Cuba’s false, politically-driven inclusion on the State Sponsors of Terror list –  put real restraints on the financial transactions needed for families to visit families in Cuba and for people-to-people exchanges to take place.

Of course, Cuba should be removed from the State Sponsors List. No, we don’t believe that Cuba’s government is engaging in “blatant emotional blackmail,” as Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen alleged. Using the travel cut-off to pressure the U.S. into unwinding its position on the terror list simply doesn’t make sense because, frankly, tourism is good for Cuba’s economy and the businesses of its private entrepreneurs.

A temporary work-around that gets banking services restored to Cuba’s consular services will be a good first-step, but more is needed.  As we reported last week, a majority of Americans and an even larger majority of Floridians believe that fundamental changes in U.S. – Cuba policy ought to be made.

Among them, as the Associated Press previously reported, is a Cuban-American powerbroker named Jorge Pérez.  His wealth just enabled him to open a museum in Miami and, unlike the Washington Post, Mr. Pérez probably knows a relic when he sees one.

Read the rest of this entry »


¡Azúcar!

February 7, 2014

A few years back, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen invited a Congressional reporter to observe her daily ritual of making Cuban coffee.  She percolated a pot of Café Bustelo, placed “a healthy amount of sugar,” in a separate cup, and then added “a few drops of coffee into the sugar.”

She stirred aggressively, “that’s what makes the ‘espuma’ or the foam” she explained. “Thicker foam makes for better coffee.  That’s the mystique.  Well, that and the sugar.”

As she tells her staff: “You can’t have too much sugar.”

Now, thanks to Alfy Fanjul, whose recent interview in the Washington Post triggered a reaction among embargo supporters akin to an immense sugar rush, she’s probably cutting back.

If tobacco bound the agonized history of the American South to the broader national experience, sugar is the commodity that has tied the United States, Cuba, and Florida – our people, our economies, our politics – together for three centuries.

Louis Pérez, in his landmark work, On Becoming Cuban, chronicles the pervasive influence of U.S. corporations on the island felt most powerfully at the sugar mill.  Sugar was the feedstock for the wealth and power amassed by Cuba’s most influential families for generations before the revolution; among them, the Fanjul family, which started its sugar operations in the 1850s.  Fidel Castro’s father, Ángel Castro raised sugar cane; and his son experienced the allure but also the exclusion of foreign corporate sugar interests which, according to one history, “enraged” him.

The United States was Cuba’s largest market for sugar exports.  The industry’s mills were among the first U.S. assets nationalized by the revolution.  President Eisenhower in December 1960 retaliated by prohibiting the imports of sugar in the U.S.; the following year, sugar plantations were targeted for bombings and shipments of Cuban sugar were targets for contamination.

The Fanjul family fled the island for Florida, which soon replaced Cuba as this country’s sugar bowl.  They reestablished their business, and began selling sugar under brand names like Domino and Jack Frost. According to one report, their holdings include more than 400,000 acres of land, with holdings that comprise as much as 12% of Palm Beach County, operations in 20 U.S. states, Canada, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico.

With politics as their industry’s protection, the Depression-era farm program that props up domestic sugar growers has been immune to the cuts that have hit nearly all other federally-supported commodities. This has enriched the Fanjuls, some estimates say, by as much as $60 million annually, while raising food prices, as Progreso Weekly reports, for us all.

Naturally, a fraction of this money is recycled into the system through campaign contributions to friends in Congress who vote with Big Sugar, philanthropy to public causes, and support to the institutions painstakingly built in Florida and Washington to keep the embargo in place, while the most hardened enemies of the Cuban government cling to the embargo and wait for the Castro brothers to die.

This notion of a “biological solution” fixing Cuba, so alive in the minds of some exiles, has never succumbed to realities such as the long life spans of Fidel and Raúl Castro or the implausibility of their successors giving up what they spent their lives creating.  Paradoxically, there is a counterpart notion in the minds of Cuba policy reformers; namely, that this stupid embargo policy will never die until patriarchs like Alfy Fanjul “age out” of the South Florida political demographic as well.

In his interview with the Washington Post, Mr. Fanjul told reporters about his travels to Cuba, his meetings with the foreign minister, and his willingness to make investments in Cuba.

Significantly, Mr. Fanjul would invest without waiting for Cuba to satisfy the preconditions written into the Helms-Burton law by public officials, many of whom his family has supported financially, which otherwise require the embargo to remain in place.

As Phil Peters wrote this week, “Short of Jorge Mas Canosa arising from the dead and saying, ‘Never mind,’ it’s hard to think of a bigger shift in the Miami political landscape than the news that the Fanjul brothers have traveled to Cuba and would like to invest there.”

To put it mildly, these statements from someone the Post called “one of the principal funders of the U.S. anti-Castro movement,” enraged leading supporters of U.S. sanctions on Cuba.  Representatives Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who last year published an op-ed denouncing Cuba’s government for “enforcing political conformity” using “public acts of repudiation,” repudiated Mr. Fanjul for deviating from the hardliner’s hardline.

Rep. Diaz-Balart said, “Some might be blind to the Castro regime’s brutality and ruthless oppression, but Alfonso Fanjul’s betrayal is compounded because he knows better. In her statement, Rep. Ros-Lehtinen said, “it’s pathetic that a Cuban-American tycoon feels inspired to trample on the backs of those activists in order to give the communist thugs more money with which to repress.”

One critic predicted Fanjul would soon be hiring Cuban slaves to produce sugar.  Another demanded a Congressional inquiry into his travel and concluded his post: Mr. Fanjul, “your travel papers please.”  The former staff director of the House Foreign Relations Committee proposed a policy change to deny any recipient of farm subsidies the right to travel to Cuba.

It’s hardly a surprise that the Fanjul interview sparked such a vitriolic family feud.  Change is unsettling, but never more so when the prospect of change occupies such a distant horizon, as it has in Cuba and the U.S. for so many decades.  Located there, change can be foreboding, not hopeful.

We’ve been tantalized and disappointed by the auguries of change before.  And yet, what is happening now makes so much sense: movement toward normalization before the revolutionary generation in Cuba “ages out,” sped forward by a 76-year-old exile living in South Florida who says he just wants to do business back home and reunite the family.

Most of us believe this is where history was taking us anyhow.  If this leaves a bitter aftertaste with the remaining supporters of the embargo; well, isn’t that what sugar is for?

Read the rest of this entry »