Miami’s Democratic Opening

October 10, 2014

Not long ago – in places like Miami – it was dangerous to express views that deviated from the strict hardline that supported the U.S. embargo against Cuba.

Human Rights Watch reported in 1994 that Miami-based participants in “The Nation and Emigration” conference in Havana returned home to find themselves “besieged by death threats, bomb threats, verbal assaults, acts of violence, and economic retaliation.”

This is not ancient history for Vivian Mannerud, owner of a travel agency, who helped 340 people from Miami to attend Pope Benedict’s 2012 visit to Cuba, after which she found her office destroyed by fire. As she said at the time, “It looks like an atomic bomb exploded. It’s pulverized and the furniture is ashes. There’s not even a leg of a desk.”

As we documented in our essay bidding farewell to Francisco Aruca, early efforts in Miami to have a democratic debate on what is the best Cuba policy took nearly a generation to bear fruit. But core values – most importantly, love of family – have gradually resulted in more and more members of the Cuban diaspora finding and raising their voices.

You can hear them, as measured by public opinion surveys conducted this year by the Atlantic Council, the Miami Herald, and by the prestigious Florida International University survey. FIU’s 2014 poll found towering majorities in Miami-Dade’s Cuban American community for lifting all travel restrictions for all Americans who wish to visit Cuba.

In the past, candidates standing for election in Florida, regardless of party or office, simply adopted the hardline position most suitable to meet their political needs.

But now, you can hear diaspora voices echoing in Hillary Clinton’s memoir, published in anticipation of her run for the presidency, in which she revealed her surprising support for lifting the embargo. As NPR said at the time, “There may be no greater sign of the declining power of the Cuba embargo as an issue in U.S. politics than Clinton’s openness about advocating for its end.”

You can also hear them in the decision by Charlie Crist, running for governor this year in Florida, who advocates “taking away” the embargo; and, in the public support offered by Alfonso (Alfy) Fanjul, along with many other foreign policy figures who previously supported sanctions, for increasing travel to Cuba and undertaking other forms of engagement with the island.

Not everyone sees these developments as representing progress (or even reality); remember, for example, Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart, who called the Atlantic Council’s findings of super-majority support among Miami Cubans for big changes in U.S.-Cuba policy, “an absolute lie.”

But, as our friends at #CubaNow proved this week with their new video, it is possible to have a robust, open, two-sided debate about policies like Cuban American travel to the island, even just one month before the 2014 midterm elections.

Their Spanish-language ad, titled “Protect,” urges registered voters in the Cuban American community to vote their interests by supporting candidates who will protect their rights to travel to the island without limits, rights restored in 2009 by President Obama.

Release of this ad, as we report below, helped lift the issue of family travel into the campaign for Congress in Florida’s 26th district, in which the incumbent Representative Joe Garcia will face Carlos Curbelo in next month’s mid-term elections. In in this race, it’s fair game to raise the question: where do you stand on family travel?

After Ric Herrero, #CubaNow’s executive director, issued a public challenge to Governor Scott and his opponent Charlie Crist “to clarify where they stand on U.S.-Cuba policy,” the candidates have been forced to answer the question – do you support the embargo? – in the Telemundo debate they recorded this morning for broadcast tonight.

According to the Tampa Bay Times’ initial coverage of their face-off, “Crist wants to lift the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba. Scott says it should continue.”

We’ll find out from the election returns on November 4– in Miami’s 26th Congressional district and across Florida in the governor’s race – how the candidates with these contrasting positions fared. In its survey published in June, the Miami Herald reported that 2/3 of Floridians said that Crist’s position on the embargo would make “no difference” in how they’ll make their choices for governor in November. That could well be true.

However, what we think is worth noting – and celebrating – is this: When public officials in the U.S. work to stop travel to Cuba and oppose engagement with Cuba’s government, they are also trying to silence the growing calls for exchange between the citizens and diplomats of both our countries. Now their obstructionism comes with a price.

By contrast, as the inhibitions against having a real, two-way discussion on U.S.-Cuba policy have given way to a free, respectful debate, the Cuban American community and people across Florida are making an inspiring statement about our values and willingness to stand behind them.

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Ending the Embargo: Can “Brand America” Bail Obama Out?

September 26, 2014

Not a great week for President Obama or his resilient support for the U.S. embargo against Cuba.

With heads of state and government gathering at the United Nations for the 69th Session of the General Assembly, Juan Manuel Santos, President of Colombia, and Salvador Sánchez Cerén, President of El Salvador, spoke out strongly against the U.S. embargo.

Santos said, “I have faith that the United States and Cuba can form a working relationship that allows the United States to lift the embargo that from my point of view has failed.”

In his first General Assembly speech as president, Sánchez Cerén said, “In the pursuit of peace efforts, and of equitable development there is no place for the disdain of fundamental principles and freedoms which is found in the economic, trade and financial blockade against the sister republic of Cuba.”

These strong words, coming from leaders of America’s staunchest allies in the hemisphere, merely echo what has already been said by influential foreign policy voices – like Hillary Clinton, Yoani Sánchez and, yes, John Oliver.

Earlier this year, former Secretary of State Clinton described to Jorge Ramos why she now favors lifting the embargo.

“I think it has propped up the Castros because they can blame everything on the embargo…You don’t have freedom of speech, you don’t have freedom of expression, you know, you’re still having political prisoners, everything is blamed on the embargo.”

Yoani Sánchez, the Cuban dissident, who has gone from communicating with the outside world with flash drives, to winning a Yahoo! fellowship at Georgetown University, wants the U.S. to end the embargo for a similar reason.

“I come from a generation of Cubans that have grown up with an official discourse constantly running through my ears that has expertly used the embargo as its foremost excuse — blamed for everything from the lack of food on our plates to the lack of liberty in the streets.”

Commenting on President Obama’s decision this month to extend Cuba’s status as the only nation on Earth subject to trade sanctions under the World WWI-era Trading with the Enemy Act, John Oliver told his HBO audience this week:

“Cubans blame the embargo for everything — the economy, the weather, the complete collapse of Homeland in its second season which, to be fair, Cubans probably haven’t seen but if they do they’ll hate it and they’ll blame the embargo for it.”

Clinton, Sánchez, and Oliver make a point President Obama has not fully absorbed; namely, it’s possible to have differences with Cuba’s government, political system, and economy and still see that the embargo, started by the Kennedy Administration and held together by a law enacted in 1917, has completely “failed.”

If the President wanted to consider a “newer” approach, he might read the remarks on Burma by Charles H. Rivkin, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Economic and Business Affairs.

As you may know, our State Department is extremely critical of Burma’s systemic human rights abuses, extrajudicial killings, restrictions on speech, press, assembly, association, religion, and movement, and for its 45 prisons, 100 government labor camps, and 60,000 prisoners.

In Burma, however, Rivkin sees no place for an embargo. He’s heard “what American companies faced — or have faced in the wake of sanctions. They range from other foreign investors taking advantage of our absence to our own reporting requirements.”

Instead, he believes the U.S. business community – representing “Brand America” – will help take Burma where it needs to go: “towards a more connected, vibrant, and prosperous future.”

He argues this: “When people buy American, they buy into our values and beliefs as well as our culture of practicality and trust in the open market.”

Admittedly, this is the homeliest argument we’ve heard for ending sanctions and promoting U.S. investment in countries whose political systems we oppose. But, if the President buys it and applies it to Burma, he should seize it as a rationale for ending the embargo of Cuba — particularly now.

In the next few weeks, the UN General Assembly will turn its attention to Cuba, where resolutions condemning the embargo have been adopted by increasingly lopsided margins for 22 consecutive years.

As John Oliver observed Sunday night, “It’s been a while since Cuba was a genuine threat, and by continuing the embargo, we’re not just pissing them off, we’re pissing off almost the entire world.”

We can’t do any worse than the vote in 2013, which the U.S. lost by 188-2, even after the U.S. has spent the last year cranking up the embargo machinery against many of our closest allies.

But why even try?

If “Brand America” can ride to the President’s rescue, he should probably saddle it up.

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