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.

Read the rest of this entry »


Freeing Alan Gross — Does it hinge on what the definition of “equivalence” is?

December 5, 2014

 ***

ANNOUNCEMENT: CDA has started a petition asking Senator Marco Rubio and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen to end the double-standard they adhere to by allowing top staffers to visit China while opposing U.S. citizens’ right to travel to Cuba. Watch the video below and sign the petition here.

***

A sad and troubling milestone was passed on Wednesday, which marked the fifth anniversary of Alan Gross’s arrest in Cuba.

This week, the State Department said, “[his] continued incarceration represents a significant impediment to a more constructive bilateral relationship.” Florida politicians demanded, predictably, that the administration tighten sanctions further rather than negotiate with Cuba for his release. As White House sources assured ABC News that the president and the National Security Council were working on a solution, his family said Mr. Gross is “wasting away.”

When members of a CDA delegation saw Mr. Gross in prison in 2011, it would have been unimaginable that this drama would last this long. After several other visits, it’s still inconceivable that his life — and the future of our relations with Cuba policy — now hinges on the definition of equivalence, when his route to freedom is simple and clear. Yet, this is where things seem to stand.

In 2009, Mr. Gross, a USAID subcontractor, was arrested in Havana for committing “Acts Against the Independence or Territorial Integrity of the State.” As Peter Kornbluh explained in the Nation, “Gross was arrested on his fifth trip to Cuba while attempting to create untraceable satellite communications networks on the island; a Cuban court subsequently sentenced him to fifteen years in prison.”

For years, Cuba’s government professed its willingness to negotiate for his release. A deal seemed imminent in 2010, as Newsweek reported, until U.S. assurances that the Helms-Burton-funded activities which led to Gross’ arrest would be trimmed back were undermined by USAID itself.

Then Cuba linked a solution to the fates of five imprisoned Cuban intelligence agents. They were arrested in 1998 and later convicted in a politically-charged trial that is still being reviewed due to allegations of misconduct by the U.S. government. For crimes that included failing to register as foreign agents to engaging in a conspiracy to commit espionage, the Cubans, known at home as “the Five Heroes,” received sentences from 15-years to life in prison.

While two of the agents, René González and Fernando González, served out their terms and returned to Cuba, Gerardo Hernández, Antonio Guerrero, and Ramón Labañino remain behind bars.

The logical formula for securing Mr. Gross’s release – a prisoner exchange covering the three Cuban agents – is hardly a state secret. As the New York Times said in its editorial, “A Prisoner Swap With Cuba,”

“The American government, sensibly, is averse to negotiating with terrorists or governments that hold United States citizens for ransom or political leverage. But in exceptional circumstances, it makes sense to do so. The Alan Gross case meets that criteria.”

Hardliners call negotiating with Cuba to free Mr. Gross “appeasement.” As Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-27) has said, “Cuba is a state-sponsor of terrorism. We should not be trying to barter with them. We must demand the unconditional release of Gross, not engage in a quid-pro-quo with tyrants.”

In explaining its opposition to a swap, the State Department says, “We’ve always made it clear that there’s no equivalence between an international development worker … and convicted Cuban intelligence agents.”

Well, to paraphrase President Bill Clinton, it depends on what the meaning of the word “equivalent” is.

Bill LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh argue in the Miami Herald today that the Gross and Cuban spy cases, while different, have greater similarities than our government admits:

“Both Gross and the Cuban spies were acting as agents of their respective governments – sent by those governments into hostile territory to carry out covert operations in violation of the other country’s laws. In both cases, their governments bear responsibility for their predicament and have a moral obligation to extricate them from it.”

To end the stalemate, LeoGrande and Kornbluh call for a “parallel humanitarian exchange,” based on deals between Cuba and the U.S. during the Kennedy and Carter administrations that led to the release of 31 Americans, including several CIA agents. One can easily see how an arrangement would work today.

For its part, the White House did not use the phrase “unconditional release” in its statement on Wednesday, but instead observed, “The Cuban government’s release of Alan on humanitarian grounds would remove an impediment to more constructive relations between the United States and Cuba.” A reciprocal humanitarian gesture would involve President Obama commuting the sentences for the remaining Cubans prisoners to time served.

In the end, the humanitarian concerns that bind the Gross and Cuban agents’ cases together define their equivalence. It is their common humanity that should motivate Cuba and the U.S. to set aside ideological differences and assert their nation’s vital interests in a bilateral negotiation that reunites all four prisoners with their families.

There are no known alternative solutions; no other ways to avoid further diplomatic drift that can only end in human tragedy. Not the equivalent of a tragedy, but the real thing.

Read the rest of this entry »


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!

Read the rest of this entry »


Will Immigration Blowback Affect the Chances for Cuba Reforms?

November 21, 2014

We couldn’t watch the President’s immigration reform speech last night without wondering what we could learn from his action – and the overreaction to it. What will happen if Mr. Obama also uses his executive power to make decisive changes in Cuba policy?

Here’s our take.

Get ready for a flood of bogus questions about presidential power. Immigration opponents hit hard at whether President Obama even had the authority to implement the reform program he announced last night. But these arguments were met with slam dunk responses firmly grounded in Supreme Court findings, and the fact that every president since Eisenhower — including Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush —  has used his presidential power to defer the deportations of immigrants a total of 39 times in the intervening 60 years.

The President retains broad authority to change policy toward Cuba. The World War I-era Trading with the Enemy Act, the law on which the Cuba embargo is based, is applied by a discretionary act of the President on an annual basis.  While Congress codified elements of our sanctions policy under Helms-Burton, legal analyses by authorities including Bob Muse (writing here in Americas Quarterly), Hogan Lovells, and others make clear the President and his appointees, such as the Treasury Secretary, can make big changes in the policy based on powers they already have.

For example, President George W. Bush exercised that power by curtailing mercilessly travel by Cuban-Americans to visit their families on the island, putting a damper on legal U.S. farm exports to feed the Cuban people, and authorizing the program to lure Cuban doctors from their foreign postings.

President Obama has also taken executive action on Cuba before. In 2009, he restored the right of the diaspora community to travel to Cuba and provide financial support to their families, and in 2011 he reopened people-to-people travel. Presidents do have the power to act.

There will be phony suggestions about upstaging the Congress. After six years of gridlock that blocked legislation on immigration reform, critics blasted the administration for fouling the chances for a bipartisan law to emerge from Congress.  However, as John Cassidy wrote in the New Yorker, the President is being traditional, not radical, in authorizing changes in the enforcement of immigration laws. As Thomas Mann writes for Brookings, “The cost of such unrelenting opposition and gridlock is that policymaking initiative and power inevitably flow elsewhere – to the executive and the courts.”

Time and again, an aggressive faction within Congress has tried repeatedly to repeal, resist, and delay actions taken within the discretion of the President – such as revising the rules for travels and remittances – or by blocking his nominees for Cuba-related and non-Cuba related foreign policy jobs.  Until the overdue debate begins on repealing Helms-Burton, the President knows that any far-sighted action he takes to modernize Cuba policy he will be taking alone.

He knows and we know what he can and should do: expand travel and remittances from the U.S. to Cuba, stop punishing foreign companies for doing legal business with Cuba’s government, remove Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terror, expand bilateral engagement in areas like the environment, and take the steps required to free Alan Gross.

In his masterful article in Americas Quarterly, “U.S. Presidential Action on Cuba: The New Normalization?,” Robert Muse, a sanctions law specialist, lays out the legal basis for ending most of the counter-productive punishments inflicted on Cuba’s people by our government.  Mr. Obama’s power to act is not in doubt.

Will he do it?  To date the president has made modest but useful changes in the policy. There are ample reasons – substantive and political – for him to do more.  But Cuba has never been a high priority for his administration, and, after the upheavals prompted by the deal that freed Sgt. Bergdahl and his immigration speech, we can imagine that gun-shy White House advisers will counsel Mr. Obama not to do anything big on Cuba now.

Nevertheless, the climate around Cuba reforms has changed for the better this year, and we are also heartened by what Senator Marco Rubio said after his exchange with Tony Blinken at his confirmation hearing: “I am very concerned that President Obama’s nominee to be John Kerry’s deputy at the Department of State passed up several opportunities today to categorically rule out the possibility of unilateral changes to U.S. policy towards Cuba.”

We hope the President goes bold and acts soon.  We don’t expect a nationwide address – or that the networks would cover it if he did (they aired “The Biggest Loser,” “Big Bang Theory,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” and “Bones” instead of his immigration speech).

But bold action by President Obama would enable U.S.-Cuba relations to move forward, he’d get great coverage in the history books, and it’s exactly the right thing for him to do.

Read the rest of this entry »


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.

Read the rest of this entry »


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.

Read the rest of this entry »


On Ending Pipsqueak Diplomacy

October 3, 2014

We offer three loud, enthusiastic cheers to our friends Bill LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh.  Their new book, Back Channel to Cuba, immediately made news and refocused discussion on the decrepit state of U.S.-Cuba diplomacy.

“Clobber the pipsqueak” was Henry Kissinger’s call to war against Cuba.

Using documents obtained from President Gerald Ford’s presidential library, LeoGrande and Kornbluh detail the former Secretary of State’s rage at Cuba for disrupting the détente he had designed with Russia and the opening of China by sending its troops to help Angola preserve independence against attacks from South Africa, then our anti-communist ally.

As the New York Times reports, Kissinger set in motion the creation of contingency plans whose options included blocking Cuban ships from carrying troops and weapons to Africa to the bombing of Cuban bases and airfields.

A decision to strike the island was delayed until after the 1976 presidential election since, as one document said, “Escalation to general war could result.” Had President Ford beaten Jimmy Carter at the ballot box, we might well have found that out.

That even the idea of war was contemplated just fifteen years after the Cuban missile crisis is astonishing, as the authors said on MSNBC, since the agreement which ended it reflected a U.S. promise not to attack Cuba.

Although war fever spiked again during the Reagan years, diplomatic isolation, interrupted by episodes of engagement on matters like migration, has defined U.S. policy toward Cuba even under President Obama.

Yet, as Kornbluh and LeoGrande write in The Nation this week, “Obama can’t dodge the Cuba issue much longer. The Seventh Summit of the Americas, scheduled for Panama next spring, will force Cuba to the top of the president’s diplomatic agenda.”

Created in 1994, the Summit of the Americas has convened leaders of Western hemisphere nations six times without Cuba at the table.  Cuba is barred, chiefly at the behest of the United States, because it is not a democracy.

But, as Uruguay’s Foreign Minister Luis Almagro told the Miami Herald this week, Latin America has united behind the position “that Cuba should be part of the 2015 Summit.” By inviting Cuba, Panama “has welcomed this desire and I believe that the invitation sent to Cuba is good news for the inter-American family.”

Panama has put President Obama in a pickle.

As Nick Miroff, writing for the Washington Post, frames the choice:

“(If) Obama skips the conference, or sandbags it by sending Vice President Biden, it would render the already-weak OAS even more hobbled, and potentially deal a fatal blow to the possibility of future summits.

“If Obama does attend, it could lead to some awkward shoulder-rubbing with Raul Castro.”

This choice is not complicated for hardline supporters of our current policy like Senator Robert Menendez, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman.  In a rather apocalyptic letter to the president of Panama, Menendez wrote:

I am gravely concerned that inviting the Government of Cuba to the next Summit of the Americas sends the wrong message about the consolidation of democracy in the Americas, will dramatically weaken the democratic credentials of the premier meeting of heads of state in the hemisphere, and ultimately will undermine the validity of the Summits’ declarations.”

Not to be outdone, Mauricio Claver-Carone, Director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, predicts in the Miami Herald “a veritable unleashing of authoritarian ambitions in the hemisphere” if Cuba is seated at the summit.

Tiptoeing for time, the U.S. State Department approaches the problem as if it weren’t imminent. As Jen Psaki, State’s spokesperson said in a briefing: “Well, as I understand it, it was an announcement of (an) intention to invite.”

But, denial is not diplomatic.  As Fulton Armstrong and Eric Hershberg write this week, “Latin America sees Cuba as a full member of the hemisphere and has lost all patience with those in Washington who would deny that.”

The theme connecting Kissinger’s arrogance in 1976 to Senator Menendez’s easy dismissal of the prerogatives of Panama’s democratically-elected president is the inherent disregard that U.S. diplomacy has for Cuba’s existence as a sovereign nation.

That’s how we used to treat Vietnam.  Now, the Obama administration is selling its government lethal weapons, “to help Hanoi strengthen its maritime security as it contends with a more assertive China.”

There are much better reasons – such as rebuilding U.S. ties to the region – for the U.S. to drop its pipsqueak approach to Cuba and adopt a more robust diplomacy based on engagement.

A lesson drawn by Kornbluh and LeoGrande from six decades of back channel dialogue is that replacing hostility with reconciliation is not only possible, but capable of serving “the vital interests of both nations.”

Time, as they say, is running out, but President Obama can still rise to the occasion.

Read the rest of this entry »


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.

Read the rest of this entry »


Rubio’s Secret: His China Policy Would Work Great in Cuba

September 5, 2014

Senator Marco Rubio is on to something. He’s already put together a smart replacement for his ineffective Cuba policy. He just doesn’t know it yet. It’s his China policy.

Late last week, we circulated the stunning news unearthed by the Tampa Bay Times captured by this appropriately stunning headline: “Chinese government pays for trip by aides to Rubio, Ros-Lehtinen”.

This was a story with a “why don’t I rub my eyes, am I dreaming?” quality to it. Yet, the Florida legislators, two fierce opponents of travel by Americans to Cuba, confirmed it was true. Sally Canfield, Deputy Chief of Staff to Rubio, and Arthur Estopinan, Chief of Staff to Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-27), had both accepted free travel junkets to China with costs picked up by the Communist Chinese state.

But, they reacted to the story very differently.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen pled ignorance of what she called “China’s involvement” in paying the costs for Mr. Estopinan’s trip, estimated at $10,000; this to a country she has accused of abusing human rights by harvesting human organs from prisoners.

Known for straightforward, even strident language, she issued a classic non-denial-denial: “As my legislative record shows, I disagree with the decision by my Chief of Staff to visit China and will take internal steps to ensure no trips like this happen again.”

Are we clear?

Rubio’s tack was entirely different.

In written comments, a spokesman for the statesman made a logical, three-point case for engaging with China, saying, in essence, ‘They’re bad, they’re big, so we have to talk.’

Point 1: “Senator Rubio has consistently condemned the totalitarian nature of the Chinese government, its record of systematic human rights violations and its illegitimate territorial claims.”

Point 2: “While he abhors many of the Chinese government’s actions, as a member of the Senate’s foreign relations and intelligence committees, he cannot ignore their growing geopolitical importance.”

Point 3: So, he “recognizes that staff travel approved by the U.S. government and Senate ethics is sometimes necessary in helping advance our advocacy on a host of foreign policy issues.”

This took guts. Yes, it was hypocritical for someone who had said that Americans who visit Cuba behaved as if they were visiting a zoo, getting “to watch people living in cages to see how they are suffering.”

Yes, the timing was awkward. As the trip scandal made news, China was embroiled in controversies over rigging an election framework in Hong Kong, interfering with a U.K. inquiry into its relations with Hong Kong, ending a newspaper column by a Chinese hedge fund manager in the Hong Kong Economic Journal, and using its anti-trust laws to curtail competition posed by U.S. businesses.

But, Rubio was being consistent. In the heat of the 2012 election, he broke with Mitt Romney, saying Romney’s plan to label China a currency manipulator was the equivalent of opening a trade war. In his recent comments about his staffer’s trip, he matches a plainspoken critique of China’s human rights practices and security threats with his practical and pragmatic support for dealing with China’s government.

Even after writing that in China, “Political persecution, including detention without trial and violations of fundamental human rights, are the norm,” Senator Rubio called upon “President Obama to speak frankly with President Xi about the areas where Washington and Beijing disagree.”

In other words, Senator Rubio does have a plan for dealing with China. It rejects sanctions, but supports travel, bilateral engagement, diplomacy, and straightforward talk.

Rubio’s approach on China would be an ideal replacement for his Cuba policy, if he had the guts to make the switch.

There is a lesson here for President Obama. On September 2nd, Jen Psaki, spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State, took a question at her news briefing about Panama’s intention to invite Cuba to next year’s meeting of the Summit of the Americas, a forum from which the U.S. has worked to exclude Cuba since it began meeting in 1994.

Rather than supporting an opportunity for engagement with Cuba focusing on areas, as Rubio might say, where Washington and Havana disagree, Psaki declared that Cuba’s presence at the forum would “undermine commitments previously made” including “strict respect for the democratic system.”

Two days later, her colleague, Marie Harf, called the building in which the State Department’s new “Diplomacy Center” will be housed, “a very cool thing indeed.”

Amidst peals of laughter among the assembled journalists, she explained, “Cool. It’s a technical term.”

Fact is that President Obama has a workable alternative to his Cuba policy. It’s called engagement. Engagement’s cool, too. But, using it, well, that would take guts.

Read the rest of this entry »


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.”

Read the rest of this entry »