Thanksgiving Edition: Shout-outs and holiday helpings of news

November 26, 2014

As we prepare for the holiday and gird for stormy weather in the U.S., we offer you light reading and simple gratitude in today’s Thanksgiving Edition.

In the final days of 2014, we have reached a moment to savor: the table has been set for President Obama to make decisive changes in U.S.-Cuba relations.

A remarkable group of women and men – here and in Cuba – began the good fight long before we hit send on the first edition of the Cuba Central News Blast.

This year, truly exceptional table setters drove progress in ways that built on their decades-long efforts. In the spirit of this holiday, we remember events and the people who took actions that made us thankful in 2014:

  • Big shifts in support for normalizing relations – nationally, and especially in Florida and its Cuban American precincts – documented precisely and honestly in surveys by Florida International University, the Atlantic Council, and the Miami Herald.
  • Bold leaders – retired U.S. officials, regional experts, and historic opponents of Cuba’s government – whose letter to President Obama demonstrates that real reforms are a mainstream expression of U.S. foreign policy interests.
  • Comics and pundits who made us laugh and think as they talked about ending the embargo.
  • Families who allowed reconciliation to replace revenge in their hearts; a once lonely process is now engaging thousands of families today.
  • Investigative journalists, whistleblowers, and others who did the bold and persistent work to bring the scandalous activities of USAID’s Cuba program to light.
  • The men and women who are working quietly and diligently so Gerardo Hernández,Antonio Guerrero, Ramón Labañino, and Alan Gross can return home.
  • The New York Times Editorial Board for making the case, again and again, to the public and our national leadership that ending the embargo is in the national interests of the U.S.
  • Scholars and historians whose new books built a stronger foundation for change.
  • Smart, courageous allies who make the reform case in really creative ways.
  • Readers that support the Blast whose donations let us share what we learn and think with all of you.

In the days and months to come, we will keep working and continue urging President Obama to transform U.S.-Cuba relations. The times demand it and he has the power to do it.

We know you believe this, just as we do. We invite you to join us by raising your voices and supporting our work.

You won’t hear from us until the first Friday in December.  Between now and then, Alan Gross will mark the fifth anniversary of his arrest.  There are empty seats at his family’s Thanksgiving table and in the homes of the Cuban Three who have been locked away in the United States considerably longer.  A real reform must encompass a solution for them all.

The table is set and it’s time for the President to act.

Happy holidays!

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ICYMI: FATF Takes Cuba Off Its AML/CFT List! Wait, What?

October 31, 2014

Unless you cyber-troll the FATF website, you probably missed this item.

Last Friday, FATF congratulated Cuba for taking such strong actions to police its financial system that Cuba will no longer be monitored for its compliance with anti-money-laundering and anti-terrorist finance rules.

Be patient. Don’t flip to the “Recommended Reading” section just yet. This is about Cuba’s false and unfair listing by the U.S. State Department as a state sponsor of terror.

FATF is actually a thing, not just a bad acronym: The Financial Action Task Force. It was created in 1989 at meeting of the G-7 nations to combat money-laundering and, after September 11, 2001, its mandate expanded to cover terrorist financing.

Countries that fail to embrace and enforce its rules suffer consequences. As the Wall Street Journal reports, it is “difficult for those nations to transact with the banking systems” of countries throughout the world, costing them billions.

If countries out of step with FATF are also subject to U.S. sanctions (e.g. the U.S. State Department’s list of terrorism-sponsoring states), their problems multiply. As a practical matter, they are locked out of the global financing sector, which could deny them “billions of dollars in potential investment,” according to one analysis.

Cuba knows this well.

Cuba was added to the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism in 1982, when the Reagan administration decided to play politics with counter-terrorism, a dangerous game taken up by every White House since. Listen to Dick Clarke, a career civil servant who advised three U.S. presidents on counter-terrorism policy, explain why Cuba stayed on the list in the 1990s; it wasn’t because Cuba supported terrorism, but rather it was for purely domestic political reasons.

Because no administration has been as candid as Mr. Clarke, they have kept Cuba on the list, but shifted their rationales for doing so as circumstances warranted.

At the start, the U.S. government accused Cuba of supporting insurgencies in Africa and Latin America. While Cuba’s activist foreign policy once involved supporting armed insurrection abroad, Cuba has long since ended these practices, as the Congressional Research Service (CRS) explains.

In 2004, the Bush administration called out Cuba for publicly opposing Washington’s “War on Terror,” not for supporting terror but for voicing criticism of U.S. policies. This was a flimsy charge, but it took the State Department a few years to drop it.

As recently as 2011, the State Department has used Cuba’s failure to meet FATF standards to justify its presence on the terror list: “Despite sustained and consistent overtures, Cuba has refused to substantively engage directly with the FATF. It has not committed to FATF standards and it is not a member of a FATF-style regional body.” Then, things changed.

Just a year later, State reported that “Cuba became a member of the Financial Action Task Force of South America against Money Laundering, a FATF-style regional body. With this action, Cuba has committed to adopting and implementing the FATF Recommendations.”

By the time the Department issued its 2013 report, all references to Cuba’s compliance with FATF’s standards had vanished completely.

So, remind us again, why is Cuba still on the terror list?

Even the State Department seemed confused when it released this year’s terror report which said, “there was no indication that the Cuban government provided weapons or paramilitary training to terrorist groups.”

In another sentence, State reported “Cuba has long provided safe haven to members of Basque Fatherland and Liberty (ETA) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).” But, in the very next line, State said, “Reports continued to indicate that Cuba’s ties to ETA have become more distant.”

We also know that Spain’s government told former President Carter that “ETA members are there at the request of the Spanish government,” and that Colombia, a close U.S. ally, is relying on Cuba as a host and facilitator for its peace talks with the FARC to help end their civil war.

This leaves only one allegation: “The Cuban government continued to harbor fugitives wanted in the United States.”

Here, the report refers to Joanne Chesimard, convicted in the U.S. for her role in the murder of a New Jersey state policeman, and to other so-called “militant groups” active in the U.S. decades ago. But, Cuba’s decision to allow them to live on the island is not an act tantamount to supporting terrorism.

Terrorism is a terrible thing. In 2013, the data show there were over 9,700 terror attacks worldwide that caused more than 17,800 deaths and 32,500 injuries. But not one casualty, not one act of violence was connected to Cuba.

So, if Cuba has zero connections to terrorism, why is it that when a reporter asked Marie Harf, the Spokesperson for State, “How much longer are you going to keep Cuba on the list of state sponsors of terrorism?” she replied by saying, “Well, it’s a good question that I know comes up a lot. The State Department has no current plans to remove Cuba from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list”?

Of course, she could have offered a more candid answer. There’s just one thing holding up Cuba’s removal from the State Department’s State Sponsors of Terrorism list, and it isn’t radical fugitives from the 1970s or 80s who found safe haven in Cuba.

It’s politics – and that’s a FATF, er, a fact.

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ZunZuneo: Is it Obama’s Elián moment?

April 11, 2014

We return to the Cuban Twitter story and begin with one remarkable, but obvious fact.  More than a week after the story broke people are still talking about it.  The obvious question: is why has it struck a chord?

It reminds us of the Elián González matter, over a decade ago.  How the six year old Cuban boy was plucked from the water after the raft that carried him from Cuba disintegrated and his mom died.  How his relatives in Miami clung to him for months denying Elián’s right to return to Cuba and live a peaceful life with his father.  How the Clinton administration seized him at gunpoint and finally returned him home.  How decisive majorities of the American public sided with Elián and supported the operation.  How the affair became a Waterloo for radical elements of the Cuban American community in Miami, causing many to reconsider their position of supporting any anti-Castro cause.

We may be wrong.  It’s too soon to tell.  But, we think the Cuban Twitter story has ushered in a similar moment for the broader community of Americans.  If that is the case, it should send a fairly clear signal to the Obama administration about its contradictory treatment of U.S.-Cuba relations.  This is a moment not simply to reconsider, but to choose a very different course.

USAID says it inherited the program from the Bush administration, a craven and deficient explanation, reminiscent of how the Kennedy administration’s hands came to be stained by the Bay of Pigs.  It made many other mistakes – more about those later – but a big one was thinking such a horrible idea could be kept a secret in the age of Edward Snowden, or that the traditional excuses for invading Cuba’s sovereignty (we did it to make Cuba democratic) would satisfy anyone at this moment in time.

We’re not saying every American is following the story, or knows the minute details of U.S.-Cuba relations in order to have a lasting reaction to what is being revealed.  But we – and we mean all of us – are experiencing a heightened sense of vulnerability with regard to our on-line lives.  Its familiarity is what makes the Cuban Twitter story so vivid and real to us all.

Just ask tens of millions of consumers who ran their credit cards through cash registers at Target thinking their information was safe.  Or think about a poll released last July showing that 70% of Americans believe that the surveillance programs exposed by Mr. Snowden are used for “other purposes” than investigating terrorism. Or that fifty-five percent of Internet users have tried to take steps to avoid observation by specific people, organizations, or the (U.S.) government.

Since much of what we’ve come to fear about the government’s surveillance programs and potential violations of our privacy has a familiar counterpart in the ZunZuneo scandal, this is what makes the Cuban Twitter episode so powerful.

The essential facts, as Phil Peters described them, are easy to understand.

“USAID created ZunZuneo, a Twitter-like information service for Cubans that operated by text message.  The U.S. government’s involvement was hidden ‘to ensure the success of the Mission.”  Cuban subscribers registered for the service, USAID gathered their personal data, and through interactions with subscribers it ranked their political tendencies….The idea was to build the subscriber base by offering interesting news content, gradually to introduce political content, and eventually to try to mobilize subscribers to political activism so as to ‘renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society’.”

The AP quotes a primary actor in the bungled affair, James Eberhard, who noted the “‘inherent contradiction’ of giving Cubans a platform for communications uninfluenced by their government that was in fact financed by the U.S. government and influenced by its agenda.”

After that, it gets worse.  Not only did the U.S. government go to great lengths to conceal its role in creating ZunZuneo from Cuban users of the service, putting at risk, “young, unsuspecting Cuban cellphone users who had no idea that this was a U.S. government-funded activity,” as Senator Pat Leahy said.  But, our government went to great lengths to conceal it from Members of Congress and the American people, and it continues to do so even after the secrets have come spilling out.  There are many.

The State Department said, “no political content was every supplied by anyone working on this project or running it.” Five days later the AP had the satirist who composed the text messages on record saying “Everything I do is politics,” and ran a series of them to prove the State Department wrong.

USAID tried to debunk a part of the story that said a Spanish company was formed to support the network, but the AP found expense reports for the costs of incorporating the firm, proving USAID wrong.

The White House said it wasn’t a covert operation; but it was. There was no other reason to hide the money that paid for it.  No other reason to conceal it from Congress.  No reason for the USAID administrator to come to a Congressional hearing and deny knowing who thought the program up.

Beyond the deceit, what makes this episode so galling is the incompetence of the contractor to whom our government outsourced this seamy side of our foreign policy.  As the AP reported, by basing the system on SMS messages received in Cuba, they ended up paying of tens of thousands of dollars in text messaging fees to “Cuba’s communist telecommunications monopoly routed through a secret bank account and front companies.”  They simultaneously poured money into the Cuban government’s pocket and exposed the operation to detection.

All of this is more than bad luck; many will pay the costs.  Just before the scandal broke, Yoani Sánchez, the Cuban blogger, debuted in Miami her latest effort, a digital news project, so sensitive that she would not disclose its name.  She and every other on-line activist in Cuba and around the world will be bearing the burden of ZunZuneo every after.

Another cost is the constitutional principle of oversight and accountability.  When Senator Jeff Flake asked for all the text messages sent by the Cuban twitter, the USAID administrator said he doesn’t have most of them but promised to turn them over if he got any from the contractor.  By outsourcing critical foreign policy decisions to corporations who appear to be unaccountable, Congress is unable to control what is done in our name.

Another cost was exacted from Cuban citizens themselves.  As one said to the AP, when the service disappeared “In the end we never learned what happened.  We never learned where it came from.”  They were abandoned by the program when it lost its funding.  You can just imagine how Alan Gross feels.

The greatest deceit of all is that any of this had anything to do with breaking Cuba’s so-called information blockade.  You can expose Cubans to American information and values without exposing them to the risk of a U.S.-designed covert operation; simply by allowing all Americans to travel to Cuba without restrictions.  But that option is not currently on the table.

It should be.  The administration has to decide whether it can smother this story through deception, or whether it can seize the moment, start telling the truth, and change course on policy.  The Cuban Twitter saga is President Obama’s Elián moment.  Let’s hope he makes something of it.  It’s time to take regime change off the table.

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