USAID’s Hip Hop Hiccup and the “Smart Power Prom”

December 12, 2014

A new USAID scandal was exposed yesterday by the exceptional investigative team at the Associated Press.

USAID, acting through its notorious contracting partner, Creative Associates International, tried to infiltrate Cuba’s hip-hop community to intensify the political messaging of its artists and use their fans to foment a rapper’s revolution.

The elaborate plan recruited Cuban musicians for initiatives that included trips to Europe for concerts and video workshops that were actually covers for anti-regime training. The Cuban participants did not know that the U.S. government was behind it.

Cloaked in elaborate secrecy using lawyers, front companies, and banks, the project was also concealed from Members of Congress whose job it was to scrutinize it.  Senator Patrick Leahy, the USAID oversight chairman who first learned of it Thursday, called the effort “reckless” and “stupid,” although the program ended in failure two years before. It seems that only the agency, its contractors, and Cuban state security knew what was going on.

There is a detailed item below that explains the story in nearly all of its troubling dimensions, so we’ll try to avoid duplicating it here. Instead, we focus on what comes through so clearly in the coverage and in AP’s accompanying documents, and that is the air of arrogance that permeates this latest example of the regime change program.

The U.S. completely misses the fact that Cuba has its own rap community that has been leading a conversation on the island about tough issues like race and the system’s stewardship of the revolution since the Soviet Union fell. Our government can’t imagine Cubans deciding for themselves what kind of country they want to build without our training them to do so.

As Phil Peters puts it, “This mentality views Cuban civil society as ours to shape.” You can see this myopic thinking at work in reports by the consultants (their writing is cleaned up for readability) who came to Amsterdam and Madrid to train their unwitting Cuban clients to be rappers for revolution. They found Cubans who were thoughtful, cautious, and not yet ready to take decisions that could put themselves or others at risk:

“Adrian is perceiving that their work is creating a change but he is not sure what type of change…It is my perception that he will need some time to think about change he wants to cause in his community and his personal responsibility.”

“They are perceiving themselves as young artists and they would like to stay in that role (without taking the burden of big responsibilities for societal processes) although they would like to see changes in their community.”

“Trainees were very receptive, motivated and enthusiastic… But, my impression is that they are not quite sure what this they would like to do together is? Or even better why they want to do it”

“My impression is that there is a consensus within the group they want to some changes in their society but it seems they never fully discuss what kind of changes they would like to see.”

What is slowing them down? Just take a look:

“In terms of group dynamic they are quite flat and democratic — they are bringing decisions through discussion. I am sure that was great environment to work within while executing A’s map project (a previous project) but I am not sure it would be best way for the future.”

The group was being too democratic. That must have made their democracy trainer really mad.

You’d like to think that there would be accountability, that somebody would take responsibility for this effort.

Not USAID. In making the debatable claim, “Any assertions that our work is secret or covert are simply false,” they refused to address the damage it inflicted on the existing discourse, or the risks placed on the Cubans from whom USAID involvement was concealed. USAID spokesman Matt Herrick: “It’s not something we are embarrassed about in any way.”

Not the State Department, whose spokesperson said in a briefing yesterday, “these programs are managed with appropriate discretion. So it was the responsibility of the grantee.” By grantee, we suppose she meant Creative Associates International. By responsibility, we think she was saying not the State Department’s problem.

Not the contractor, Creative. We visited the Creative website, and couldn’t find a trace of apology or even a Cuba program. Not in their news or press release page. We couldn’t even find a Cuba-Creative connection when we clicked on a map of the island on the page titled Where We Work. In the overt-covert world where they operate, Cuba seems to vanish without a trace.

We didn’t expect to find an apology because, truthfully, Washington really loves this stuff.

The U.S. Global Leadership Coalition held its annual tribute dinner the other night, an event which wags in Washington call the “Smart Power Prom.” Who was dubbed this year’s “Smart Power Prom King”? USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah.

The dinner was also a coronation of sorts for Senator Lindsay Graham, who will take the gavel from Senator Pat Leahy and chair the State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee when the new Congress convenes in January. The subcommittee oversees Dr. Shah and the programs he administers at USAID.

A trade reporter at the event quoted Graham as saying, “I challenge any other part of the American government to prove a better return on investment than USAID.”

He said that at dinner on Wednesday. If he stands by that statement today, well, that’s kind of sad.

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After the Deluge: Is There Hope President Obama Will Act On Cuba?

November 7, 2014

Last summer, where was the “smart money” when a deluge of unaccompanied kids fled violence and despair in Central America to seek safe haven in South Texas, upending the drive for immigration reform in the Congress, and raising the possibility that President Obama would use his executive authority to reform the immigration system on his own?

NBC News spoke for the smart money when they assured us on July 29th, “Expect these actions to take place in August – after Congress leaves town.”

Yet, we’re still waiting. The President, presumably speaking for his administration, told Chuck Todd on Meet the Press that he would act after the midterms, “because it’s the right thing for the country.” He told immigration activists one month ago: “no force on earth can stop us.” In October, he was fired up and ready to go.

Now, according to some analysts, “The midterms may have killed bold executive action on immigration.”

Our point is? Nobody knows what the president will do. Whether it’s reforming immigration or modernizing U.S.-Cuba relations, nobody knows if we’re waiting for Godot or for the sun to come out tomorrow.

***

To the New York Times, such indulgent speculation is a distraction. On Sunday, the editorial board spoke again and pressed the President to “expand trade, travel opportunities, and greater contact between Americans and Cubans” on the way toward “reestablishing formal diplomatic ties.”

But, the Times said, to accomplish these very important things, the President first would have to remove the chief obstacle to a diplomatic breakthrough. That means cutting a deal with Cuba’s government to free Alan Gross by swapping him “for three convicted Cuban spies who have served more than 16 years in federal prison.”

This is political poison to hardliners who want sanctions on Cuba for perpetuity. It took a celebrated Cuban dissident, fiction writer, and blogger Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo just three words to lay out their position against taking action to secure Mr. Gross’s release: “Let him rot!”

It really works for hardline supporters of U.S. sanctions like Mr. Pardo – photographed here with Senators Bob Menendez (NJ) and Marco Rubio (FL) – to keep Alan Gross right where he is, precisely because his continued captivity is the biggest obstacle to the White House and the Congress approving big changes in Cuba policy.

Why else would they insist, month after month, year after year, that the only correct way for our government to secure Alan Gross’s freedom is by demanding Cuba release him unconditionally; something which Cuba demonstrates, month after month, year after year, it just won’t do?

Hardliners repeat three things to prevent progress in his case. They deny he did anything wrong. As Senator Rubio says, Alan Gross was “wrongfully jailed in the first place.” They oppose negotiations, or as Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen tweeted with Pardo-like pithiness: “No concessions.” They up the ante. Unless Cuba’s government releases Mr. Gross unconditionally, as Senator Rubio says, “The U.S. should put more punitive measures on the Castro regime.”

What made the New York Times editorial so effective was how it dismantled each objection to doing the deal.

The Times explained what Mr. Gross was actually doing in Cuba — pursuing a “covert pro-democracy” initiative that is illegal under Cuban law. Because this makes the “unconditional release strategy” a dead end, the Times said “The Obama administration should swap him for three convicted Cuban spies,” which could send most hardliners into a rage spiral.

Next, the editorial spelled out what happens if Mr. Obama approves the swap: “A prisoner exchange could pave the way toward re-establishing formal diplomatic ties, positioning the United States to encourage positive change in Cuba.” But, it closed saying, “If Alan Gross died in Cuban custody, the prospect of establishing a healthier relationship with Cuba would be set back for years.” It’s rotten for Mr. Gross and his family, and those really are the stakes.

***

Again, the smart money says Mr. Obama will “do something” on Cuba now that the midterms are over. So, when Presidential Press Secretary Josh Earnest sidestepped a reporter’s question this week, and wouldn’t rule out negotiations with Cuba to secure Mr. Gross’s freedom, it was tempting to think “That’s the signal! President Obama must be nearing the decision we’ve all been waiting for.” Well, it kind of depends which President Obama we’re talking about.

Is it the President who’s been punting on immigration? Or, is it the President who said Wednesday, “I’m the guy who’s elected by everybody, not just from a particular state or a particular district. And they want me to push hard to close some of these divisions, break through some of the gridlock, and get stuff done.”

Again, are we waiting for the sun to shine or are we waiting for Godot?

Nobody cares more about who’s going to show up in the Oval Office to make this decision and get stuff done than Alan Gross. Is there hope? We hope so. But nobody really knows.

Read CDA Director Sarah Stephens’ recent blog post about Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo’s “Let him rot” tweet here.

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Labor Day Weekend “No Apologies” Edition

August 29, 2014

Dear Friends:

Thank you for welcoming us back.

While we were on holiday last week, the Associated Press reported, “The U.S. Treasury Department’s inspector general has determined Jay-Z and Beyonce’s fifth-anniversary trip to Cuba last year was legal under rules allowing educational travel to the island.”

Did the AP get this story wrong? After all, Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart reached his own conclusion more than one year ago without going through the “formality” of an investigation: “It has become obvious that, in this case, the line into tourism was crossed. The Beyoncé and Jay-Z trip is a high profile example of why the ‘people-to-people’ category of travel should be eliminated. It amounts to tourism.”

Yet, after the Inspector General issued a report saying,we believe OFAC’s determination that there was no apparent violation of U.S. sanctions with respect to Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s trip to Cuba was reasonable (emphasis added),” we visited the Congressman’s Media Center and found no evidence that he’d retracted his statement.

As Stephen Colbert is fond of saying, we accept your apology.

Time and again, we’ve seen this “never explain, never apologize, never retract” strategy used by hardline defenders of U.S. sanctions over the years.

Remember when Cuba’s government scrapped the exit visa requirement established five decades ago that made it impossible for nearly all of Cuba’s citizens to travel abroad? At that time, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen dismissed the reform as propaganda. She said, “These so-called reforms are nothing more than Raúl Castro’s desperate attempts to fool the world into thinking that Cuba is changing, but anyone who knows anything about the communist 53-year old Castro dictatorship knows that Cuba will only be free when the Castro family and its lackeys are no longer on the scene.”

On behalf of the 185,000 plus Cubans who traveled abroad last year, including 66,000 to the U.S., and on behalf of Cuban dissidents –Guillermo Fariñas who received his Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought after he traveled to Europe last year, and Yoani Sánchez, welcomed from Miami to the White House – we accept her apology, too.

Remember when it seemed like every poll conducted in Florida and nationally supported rolling back the embargo and normalizing relations with Cuba? When Florida International University’s 2014 survey showed that Cuban Americans now support three big changes in U.S. policy – ending the embargo, ending restrictions on travel, and recognizing Cuba diplomatically – by the widest majority the survey has ever recorded?

Mauricio Claver-Carone, who supports increasing sanctions on Cuba, told readers of his blog to dismiss the findings of this highly regarded poll, saying “FIU has gone from having its polls sponsored by ideological non-profit organizations to ideological, for-profit lobbyists.” As a lobbyist himself immersed in partisan and ideological causes, this was hardly a strong argument against FIU’s data, confirmed by so many others.

Not to be outdone, when a reporter with the New York Times said to Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart, “Regardless of just the Cuban-American community, the American public, clearly a majority supports a change in policy in Cuba,” he responded, “That is an absolute lie.”

Gentlemen, you may start your apologies.

We could talk about the deceptive defenses of USAID’s Cuba programs, when Rep. Albio Sires, Democrat from New Jersey, was fast to his fax machine to issue his statement,“There is nothing new here.” We could also talk about their attacks on Cuba’s economic reforms, which have already enabled about 500,000 Cubans to find meaningful work, better pay, and greater autonomy in the private sector, and much more.

But, we don’t expect to hear apologies or anybody saying “I am sorry,” during this Labor Day weekend. We expect, instead, they’re out traveling like everyone else.

But, after Senator Marco Rubio compared coming to Cuba to visiting a zoo; after he scolded Tom Donohue of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for going to Cuba, because “the U.S. should not make it easier for the Castro regime to enrich itself and fund its repression with American dollars”; after Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen cited the Smithsonian for engaging in legal travel to the island, saying “It is deeply disappointing that the Smithsonian [Institution], primarily funded by American taxpayers, is facilitating access to U.S. dollars, which enables the Castro regime to make a hefty profit,” it would be nice if they were called to account for what they have said about travel, and spent at least one weekend feasting on their own words and at their own expense.

Then, perhaps Jay-Z and Beyonce could tell them, “apology accepted.”

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August Vacation and the Freedom to Travel

August 15, 2014

Just so you know, we are clearing out of the office for a week, which means we won’t be sending a fresh edition of the Cuba Central News Blast until August 29th. We’re going on vacation!

Of course, if we were working in Europe we’d have longer leave (and a better Cuba policy).  But, we still consider ourselves lucky, and still count ourselves as baffled that U.S. law frustrates the ability of most Americans to visit Cuba.

These restrictions on what Americans can do are imposed on us by the U.S. government in the name of advancing freedom in Cuba.  Which itself is altogether odd, when you consider that it is more restrictive, more bureaucratic, and more costly for nearly all Americans to receive permission from our government to visit Cuba than it is for Cubans to visit the United States or any other country.

Even worse, some policymakers in Congress would like to increase the restrictions on Americans who want to visit Cuba at a moment when more Cubans are coming to the U.S. and traveling the world than at any time since 1959.

Even worse than that, these same policy makers — the ones who restrict our rights to travel as a method for bringing democracy to Cuba — are also the biggest fans of our totally messed up “regime change” programs run out of USAID.  Read Fulton Armstrong’s recent piece about them here.   They want to shut the front door to Cuba while sending in a cast of amateurs and subversives through the backdoor.  To do what?  To break Cuba’s information blockade?   Isn’t that what travel’s for?

George Orwell could’ve designed the policy.  Some Americans — Cuban Americans, academics, and journalists — are more equal than others.  If you cannot be stuffed into one of these categories, you can journey to the island on a people-to-people program.  But it can be costly and the U.S. stipulates what you can do or can’t do once you arrive.

For most of Cuba’s post-revolutionary history, the government put tight restrictions on the right of their people to travel anywhere. The U.S. State Department is still handing out copies of a speech that President George W. Bush delivered in 2007, in which he said: “In Cuba it is illegal to change jobs, to change houses, to travel abroad…”

But, in January 2013, Cuba eliminated the requirement that its travelers obtain exit visas.  As Human Rights Watch reported this year, “Nearly 183,000 people traveled abroad from January to September 2013, according to the government. These included human rights defenders, journalists, and bloggers who previously had been denied permission to leave the island despite repeated requests, such as blogger Yoani Sanchez.”

The end of travel restrictions has begun a blossoming of economic and social openings for Cubans.  Cuentapropistas (self-employed Cubans, since it is now legal to change jobs) have reaped incredible material and professional gains from being able to purchase much needed inputs — at better prices and higher quality — and to meet their counterparts in the U.S., who share knowledge, experience and insight with them.

Our friend, Niuris Higuera, owner of Atelier Paladar in Havana, said she went home with “her head spinning from all the projects she wanted to develop in Cuba,” based on ideas she picked up in the States.

The experience was even more profound for young participants in a summer exchange program arranged by the Center for Democracy in the Americas and Cuba Educational Travel (CET) to bring four young Cubans to the U.S. to do homestays and internships.

As Collin Laverty of CET wrote us, Yoan Duarte, who graduated from the University of Havana in June and hopes to become a fashion designer, spent the summer in New York City shadowing some of the industry’s best. “The first few weeks I was constantly slapping myself in the face, thinking I was going to wake up in Havana at any moment. Now I’m eager to get back and put to work all the new skills I’ve acquired,” he said recently. Yoan plans to start his own clothing line upon return to Cuba.

Earlier today, the White House posted this paean to the travel industry, praising the growing number of jobs it is creating, the upward spiral of spending on travel and tourism-related goods and services, and how the U.S. hopes to welcome 100 million visitors per year by 2021.

We can only imagine what a stir would be created if Cubans and Americans of non-Cuban descent enjoyed the unrestricted right to exchange ideas and experience without any restrictions.  It would be good. It would be human.  But, today, that is not reality.

But the President can change that.  He has executive authority to broaden revenue-producing, information-exchanging, re-humanizing, and demystifying travel between the island and our country, which has outsized benefits compared to secreting USAID contractors into Cuba masquerading as advocates working on AIDS prevention, when they’re really trying to incite rebellion.

The choice ought to be clear to the President who, after all, got to go on vacation a week before us (which is, like, totally fair, ok?).

Happy vacation.

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Democracy: Is there an app for that?

July 3, 2014

We are on the cusp of our July 4th holiday here in the U.S., when we remember the revolutionary origins of our country and celebrate our independence with baseball, beer, and displays of fireworks accompanied by a spirited rendition of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.

Because we’re eager to finish the work week, we’re circulating our Cuba Central News Blast a little early so you can read the news now and all of us can join the party.

We start with Chip Beck, a U.S. citizen with ties to the CIA and the Navy.  According to this blog post on Wikistrat, between 1998 and 2001, while he was working as a freelance journalist, Beck traveled to Havana and received significant cooperation from the Cuban government as he investigated the disappearance of Americans in Asia, Africa, and Central America during the Cold War.  It’s a great story.

In Beck’s account of his five trips to the island, he describes familiar sounding offers by Havana to sit down and negotiate with Washington without preconditions, so long as the U.S. recognized Cuba as a sovereign nation.  He concludes by quoting a conversation he had on the Malecón with a Cuban he identifies only as a single mom with a college degree.

She said, “If you tell a Cuban what to do, he will do the opposite just to spite you. If you [Americans] stop telling us what to do, things will work out exactly like you want.”

Needless to say, this was very good advice which, a dozen years later, we’re still waiting for the U.S. government to heed.

Instead, President Obama, the 11th president in charge of foreign relations with Cuba’s revolutionary government, pursues the stale and failed policy he inherited from his predecessors.  On one track, he has made some important moves to promote two-way travel, family reconciliation, and modest forms of bilateral cooperation.  But, on the second track, he aggressively enforces the embargo with its international overreach to shut down Cuba’s access to finance and global trade.

As of last week, for example, his Administration had already imposed penalties totaling $4.9 billion against 22 banks for violating U.S. sanctions against doing business with Cuba.  That record was shattered by a penalty meted out against BNP Paribas, which pled guilty to two charges, agreed to pay a nearly $9 billion fine, and accepted bans for one and two years respectively on certain dollar clearing and processing activities – all for violations of sanctions against countries including Cuba.  This led the Bank of Ireland, which has “long-standing customers with legitimate business interests in Cuba,” to tell them it would no longer clear their transactions to or from Cuba, as the Independent reported.

At a time when tens of thousands of Cubans (like our friend Barbara Fernández) are working hard to take advantage of economic reforms – in cooperatives and private businesses – in order to live more prosperous and independent lives, tightening the screws on a policy that disregards their nation’s sovereignty and increases their daily struggles makes no sense.

Eric Schmidt, Google’s Executive President, who just wrapped up a visit to Cuba during which he voiced support for an open Internet, underscored the contradictory goals of U.S. policy in a blog post about his trip.

“The ‘blockade’,” he writes, “makes absolutely no sense to US interests: if you wish the country to modernize the best way to do this is to empower the citizens with smart phones (there are almost none today) and encourage freedom of expression and put information tools into the hands of Cubans directly.”

We were in Cuba at the same time as Google and heard Cubans express similar ideas.  They want an Internet opening to complement their economic opening.  They want workers, especially working women, to be able to get online and connect to their jobs from home.  They want a more lively public debate. Just as Cubans are now free to travel overseas, they want to be able to access more information without having to leave.  Dumping restrictions – whether on technology, U.S. travel, or finance – imposed by the U.S. would put what Cubans want in greater alignment with the ostensible goals of U.S. policy and help them get it.

Writing about the architects of our nation and their ideals, former Senator Gary Hart described what the Founders saw in history’s great republics: civic duty, popular sovereignty, resistance to corruption, and a sense of the commonwealth; what we own in common that binds us together.  Every time we visit the island, we see Cubans who share these ideals as well.

July 4th is a great day to celebrate the virtues of our system, which are many, but it can also be an occasion for some humility. In Cuba’s case, that means to stop telling them what to do, and showing respect to Cubans and their ability to figure out their future and how they want to live for themselves.

If you need help figuring out why, when we celebrate Independence Day, we set off fireworks to music commemorating Russia’s defense of Moscow against Napoleon, listen here.

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The Engagement Party

June 20, 2014

These days, the President can’t shake hands with an adversary – much less negotiate freedom for an American prisoner – without being stung by fifties-era fighting words like appeasement.

This week, however, there was more evidence that the President has greater political space to negotiate with Cuba than he might have otherwise thought.

Florida International University, which has tracked opinion in the politically conservative enclave of South Florida since 1991, has just released its 2014 poll testing how Cuban Americans view U.S. policies toward Cuba.

According to FIU’s 2014 surveymajorities of Cuban Americans now support three big changes in U.S. policy – ending the embargoending restrictions on travel, and recognizing Cuba diplomatically – at the highest levels it has ever recorded.

FIU found support for diplomatic recognition among all respondents at 68%; among younger respondents at 90%; among all registered voters at 55%; and among non-registered voters at 83%.  Since the major thrust of U.S. policy has always been to isolate Cuba and stifle contact between our two governments, finding outsized support levels among Cuban Americans for reestablishing diplomatic relations with Cuba is a really big deal.

We believe, and believe strongly, in the U.S. using diplomacy to end our self-imposed isolation and recognize Cuba.  But even short of normalization, we advocate engagement to help us jointly solve the problems we and Cuba have in common.

During most of the 41 trips to Cuba we’ve hosted, Cuban officials, academics, and others have identified issues – such as law enforcement, terrorism, drug trafficking, and much else – where both countries would benefit by increasing or starting bilateral cooperation.

Our 21st Century Cuba publications zero in on subjects – such as protecting Florida from oil spills, and working with Cuban women as they seek greater economic benefits and autonomy in Cuba’s new era of reform – where the U.S. could collaborate, help Cubans and serve our national interest, if only U.S. policy and sanctions didn’t hold us back.

Last night, as we celebrated our 8th anniversary, CDA honored three allies whose work exemplifies engagement: Wynn Segall, the eminent sanctions lawyer, who has secured the research and people-to-people travel licenses that enable us to visit Cuba; Mario Bronfman of the Ford Foundation, who supported our 21st Century Cuba research program; and Carol Browner, the former EPA administrator, who has joined her leadership on climate change to the cause of engagement with Cuba.

Their actions, to dismantle barriers to collaboration and move relations with Cuba in a more positive direction, are the model for making progress on U.S. policy.  With the FIU survey showing clear and increasing support in South Florida for dealing directly with Cuba, there is no political excuse left to hold the Administration back.

However, due to developments in the case of Alan Gross, there is even greater urgency for them to embrace engagement now.  Mr. Gross was arrested in Cuba in 2009 for regime change activities our government knew to be in violation of Cuban law.  He is in a hospital prison in Havana serving a 15-year sentence.

Since his arrest, our government has primarily called on Cuba to release him unilaterally, and dismissed Cuba’s offers to negotiate a solution that would bring him home.  This strategy has produced nothing.

Dismayed by our government’s disengagement, Alan Gross said in an appeal for help to the White House last fall: “With the utmost respect, Mr. President, I fear that my government — the very government I was serving when I began this nightmare — has abandoned me.”

Having failed to stir action, Mr. Gross went on a hunger strike in April and later threatened to take his life if he found himself in prison by his next birthday.  On Wednesday, we received word that his mother died from cancer, and learned last night that his brother-in-law also passed away this week.

In a statement issued following Gross’s mother’s death, Cuba reiterated its willingness to negotiate, and clearly linked the humanitarian concerns of Alan’s case to the three members of the Cuban Five still in prison here.

Resolving the Gross case is a prerequisite for moving forward on normalizing relations with Cuba, a virtue by itself.  But, fruitful negotiations with Cuba could also restore faith here in presidential leadership and a core purpose of diplomacy: negotiating with our adversaries to get things done.

Consider the case of Colombia.  This week, Juan Manuel Santos won reelection as Colombia’s president after beating Oscar Ivan Zuluaga in a runoff campaign.

Santos put his hold on power at risk and placed his faith in diplomatic negotiations with the FARC to end the civil war that has bloodied his country since 1964. Zuluaga, by contrast, as the Wall Street Journal reports, accused Santos of selling out Colombia at the bargaining table.

Rejecting allegations of appeasement, Santos said, “What is important, as Nelson Mandela said, is what is negotiated at the table.”  Apparently, a majority of Colombians agreed.

What a good reminder to President Obama who, just six months ago, shook hands with Raúl Castro at Mandela’s memorial.

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Freedom to Travel: a Dream Come True

May 2, 2014

This week, we are featuring a blog post from CDA’s Stephen M. Rivers Intern, Jaime Hamre. We hope you enjoy it. Jaime’s blog about her internship at CDA is available here. For more information on Stephen Rivers and the internship program we created in his name, click here.

I met Anabel while studying in Havana for two semesters in 2012. Her shaved head immediately set her apart from all of the other Cubans I had come across. As I got to know her, I found that not only is she the only Cuban vegetarian I met, she is also part of Cuba’s small community of self-proclaiming Afro-Cuban lesbians.

jaime anabel

Anabel and I in Havana

I was able to catch up with Anabel through Skype this week. It was the first time I’d seen her face in a year and a half. A couple of weeks ago, I got a message from her announcing that she was traveling to Mexico. “I’m so happy,” she wrote. “I didn’t have to marry anyone [to get a visa] and I’m going by my own means, my own work. And it’s a lesbian festival. Can you believe it???”

Making friends in Cuba was bittersweet for me. I was grateful to be welcomed into the homes and lives of so many, but I regularly felt a pang of sadness when I considered that it wasn’t likely I’d be able to return the hospitality and share my culture with my Cuban friends any time in the near future. I knew enough about the situation in Cuba — and the U.S. — to understand the political and economic barriers that a young, Afro-Cuban lesbian would face trying to travel abroad.

This changed in the middle of my second semester on the island. I remember the morning, in October 2012, when I sat down to breakfast and read the headline in Granma announcing immigration reforms. My friends, fellow students, and people on the street were abuzz with the opportunities this new freedom presented. Starting that January, Cubans would no longer be required to ask their government’s permission for an exit visa, to leave Cuba and return. I left the island wondering what this reform would mean for my Cuban friends and their families.

Today thousands of Cubans are traveling abroad every month, many leaving the island for the first time. Anabel now finds herself on a two-week trip to Mexico City. She is staying at a friend’s house with women from Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Germany, and Mexico. “It’s like a crew of lesbian feminists. It’s amazing. I’m so happy. It’s like a dream come true,” she told me between bites.

“What are you eating?” I asked.

“Capitalist things!” she laughed, joyously. “I’m trying so many new fruits that I’ve never seen in my life. And there are markets here — kilometers full of people selling stuff — muy fuerte mimi.”

Anabel’s opportunity to travel to Mexico arose after her longtime friends, the members of the Cuban feminist rap group Las Krudas (who relocated to Austin, Texas) put her in touch with two Mexican friends who went to Cuba to do research on the LGBT scene. Anabel stayed in touch with them, which eventually led to a formal invitation to attend an art festival organized by Producciones y Milagros Feminist Association. Anabel got her passport, paid 25 Cuban pesos for her visa, and was on her way. She was incredulous at how easy the process was:

“For me, leaving the country was something to which very few people had access. It’s like saying you want to be the next President of the United States. It was an impossible dream, but I always wanted to, because one wants to travel, explore, and improve one’s quality of life. But it was something very, very difficult….  Before, this dream of leaving was my main objective in life, but also my main frustration.”

Before Cuba’s immigration reform, Anabel assumed that if she was able to find a way to leave the island, she would likely not return. “I’m the first person in my family to leave the country for work, and the first person to leave and come back, too,” she told me. Her aunt left to live in the U.S. in 2006. She ended up in Las Vegas, and “is having a really hard time,” Anabel told me. “No medical insurance and four kids, it’s very complicated.”

“When did you decide that if you traveled, you were going to go back?” I asked.

“It was with this trip,” she responded:

“What I was thinking before was that the first chance I had to leave the country, I was going to stay. But honestly, right now I’m not that interested in that. I don’t think that for me, staying illegally in another country is a good option. I’m a professor [in Cuba]. I have my Master’s. Now I also know that I can leave the country in a better way. I don’t want to start from zero. So that was why when I came [to Mexico], I decided I wasn’t going to stay. I want to get a PhD… and keep studying and improving my life.”

“What are you going to do when you go back to Cuba?” I asked.

“Cry!” she responded immediately. I laughed in surprise and asked why.

“Because it’s awesome here!” she exclaimed, clearly still blown away by what she’d seen so far in Mexico. “But yes, when I go back to Cuba, I have a lot of plans,” she continued. She told me about a documentary on transgender individuals that she and two LGBT activist friends from Los Angeles are going to screen in Havana in June. She is also helping to organize a queer conference during Cuba’s annual festivities surrounding the International Day Against Homophobia.

Having longed to travel for most of her life, Anabel has spent a lot of time weighing the two worlds that are Cuba and abroad. Now that she is in Mexico, she remains convinced that Cuban society has many limits, especially in terms of its LGBT movement. But she is also adverse to characteristics she has seen in Mexico and associates with the greater capitalist system: “One of the things I love most about Cuba is that the people are very extroverted and happy, and in solidarity with each other… and human. Here the people walk right by you if you’re dying in the street. Complicado.”  Now she is hopeful that she can have the best of both worlds:

“Now that I’ve left Cuba, what I’m going to do when I get back is put my energy toward traveling again. If I’m able to come and go, I think I would like it more than living completely abroad. It makes me really sad to think about having to abandon my homeland, the air, my friendships, my family. I hadn’t thought about it before. I was in Cuba, but now I’m abroad. … And things are going well for me in Havana, too. Before, it was a lot of work, but now, we are seeing more spaces for queer people and Afro-Cubans. We are creating a new discourse. I like what I’m doing. You have to leave one reality to start another. The world is really big, and I’d like to see it.”

Anabel has that opportunity now. So for us, the next big mystery is: in which country will we be seeing each other next?

 

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