6th Anniversary edition: Arson, Oil, Economic Reform, and Supporting the Cardinal

June 8, 2012

This week, when you read the news summary—and our analysis of the news about oil drilling in Cuba, economic reform, attacks on travel in Congress, and attacks on Cardinal Ortega on Radio Marti – don’t forget how it all came together.

The Cuba Central News Team travels to Cuba, takes Members of Congress to the island, does the research and the translation, gets the access and asks the right questions, in order to get the reporting  right….on Cuba and developments in U.S. policy in Washington.

We deliver this package week after week, every Friday, before we close up and head home for the weekend.  We deliver the news and we don’t pull punches when talking about the need to reform Cuba policy and normalize relations.

Cuba Central is a project of the Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA) – a non-profit, non-governmental organization based here in DC.  We take no government money, of course, but instead depend on the generosity of people like you, who appreciate what we do and share our love for the power of the written word and even more powerful ideas.

In a little over a week our organization is celebrating its sixth anniversary.  In the spirit of that milestone, we are asking you to join with us, even if you can’t be here in person to raise a glass, by supporting our work.

If you like the work we do – and you want us to continue delivering the news to you each week in the way that only we can do it – please consider making a donation to CDA today.

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A visa “compromise” detrimental to the interests of the United States

May 18, 2012

You know how Washington works (when it works).  Opposing factions come together and “give something to get something.”  At a time when the machinery of government is so obviously broken, some would argue that more compromise is needed.

For a variety of reasons, a compromise that the Obama administration seems to have brokered – with whom we do not know – has badly backfired and compromised some pretty important principles.  It comes as no surprise that this story is about an egregious misstep on Cuba.

By way of background, the Latin America Studies Association (or “LASA”) will meet next week in San Francisco.   LASA, the most important organization of scholars who study the region, stopped coming to the U.S. for its meetings because the U.S. would not grant visas to Cubans who wanted to participate and it decided not to return to the U.S. until the problem was fixed.

Or so it thought. For next week’s conference, approximately 80 Cubans were invited and applied for visas so they could enter the United States to do so. According to this afternoon’s State Department Daily Press Briefing, of 77 received applications, 60 have been approved, 11 were denied and 6 are pending – for a conference that begins just five days from today.

Who got selected and who got rejected?  Mariela Castro Espin, the renowned champion of gay rights who heads the Cuban National Center for Sex Education, who previously visited the United States under a visa granted by the administration of George W. Bush, was among those Cubans allowed entry to attend LASA next week.

But Soraya Castro Marino, who came to the U.S. in 2010 as a visiting scholar at Harvard was, according to The Washington Post, “found ineligible this time because her presence would ‘detrimental to the interests of the United States’.”  Rafael Hernandez, a scholar who also taught at Harvard and the University of Texas, Carlos Alzugaray, a former Cuban Ambassador to the European Union, Oscar Zanetti, the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a scholar at American University, and several others who had previously received visas from the administration over the last several year were denied visas now –  because their presence would be detrimental to the U.S.

The Obama administration is enforcing no consistent principle for determining who should enter and attend LASA.  If decision makers thought welcoming some and turning away others would win them plaudits they were sadly mistaken.

Phil Brenner, a professor and Cuba scholar at American University, called the decisions “arbitrary, shameful, and cowardly.”  He observed that many of the scholars denied visas “have a history of advocating for improved relations with the United States.”  Ted Piccone, an official at the Brookings Institution who was expecting Carlos Alzugaray at an upcoming event, called it “baffling.  I wish I knew what their thinking was.”

If the administration’s strategy was to buy cheap grace with the hardliners who oppose any dialogue or engagement with Cuba by denying visas to some of Cuba’s most open and incisive intellectuals, this was a total failure.

As the Miami Herald reported, the decision to issue a visa to Mariela Castro, President Raúl Castro’s daughter, drew “irate criticism” from Cuban Americans in Congress.

Senator Bob Menendez said the U.S. government and LASA should not be “in the business of providing a totalitarian regime, like the one in Cuba, with a platform for which to espouse its twisted rhetoric.”  Senator Marco Rubio called the decision an “outrageous and enormous mistake.”  Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen called the decision “beyond comprehension.”

The administration was wrong to compromise not just because it satisfied no one or because no one “gave something to get something.”  It was wrong because the compromise was truly detrimental to the interests of the United States.

The U.S. has a policy of punishing Cuba because we object to features of the Cuban system that limit the rights of travel and expression.  The policy has accomplished none of its stated objectives for half a century.   Our government undermines whatever moral credibility the policy has left by stopping intellectuals from Cuba – who think freely and speak openly about repairing the U.S.-Cuban relationship – from traveling to our country so they could participate in an academic conference…for goodness sakes.

Is it possible that one Cuban invited to attend LASA could utter what Senator Menendez calls “twisted rhetoric” if given the chance?  Perhaps.  But we think our country is strong enough to withstand the shock.  And even if what the Cubans have to say isn’t controversial, we should be committed to their right to come and speak.  That is, what might call, the American way.

Obama should reverse the denials and welcome them in.

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Governor Scott steps on a rake; the Cuba Transition Project loses the plot

May 4, 2012

Last week, we reported on Governor Rick Scott’s decision to sign legislation to stop Florida’s municipalities and state agencies from doing business with companies that have dealings with Syria and – the intended target – Cuba.  At the time, we called him “cynical” for signing legislation that is probably unconstitutional and bad for business and the economy of his state just to score points with hardliners in the Cuban American community.   It turns out we gave him far too much credit.

On Tuesday, Scott signed the bill at a ceremony staged at the Freedom Tower in Miami to impress the hardliners who sponsored and supported the legislation most strongly.  But immediately after the event, he issued a letter indicating the law might be unconstitutional. Scott didn’t utter a word about his doubts or about his letter while the signing ceremony was taking place.  The Miami Herald said that “No governor in recent memory has signed a law and then called it unenforceable in his bill signing.” His cheering section felt blind-sided and betrayed.  Congressman David Rivera threatened to sue Governor Scott.  Cowed by controversy, Scott doubled back, promising to enforce the law.

What was he thinking?

Scott’s office issued a statement that got close to the truth:  “After consulting with all interested parties and thoroughly weighing all sides of this issue, Governor Scott signed House Bill 959 into law on May 1, 2012.”  He didn’t just weigh all sides; he adopted virtually every position imaginable on the law before buckling under the weight of a P.R. stunt gone bad.

Moving from the farcical to the tragic, let us briefly take up the promising signs coming from Cuba that Cuban citizens might soon enjoy greater freedoms to travel from and return to the island, and the Cuba Transition Project’s puzzling, even dour, reaction to this news.

Cuba maintains a complicated and costly set of rules that prevent the Cuban people from leaving or returning to the island without their government’s permission.  Cuban citizens are vocal and plain-spoken in their desire to travel freely without having to apply for exit visa, the carta blanca, requests which are often denied. These restrictions are condemned annually by the U.S. State Department and organizations like Human Rights Watch.

As the Associated Press is now reporting, “Cuba appears on the verge of a momentous decision to lift many travel restrictions.”  Some travel controls could be scrapped – cutting the fees to apply for the exit visa, ending limits on how long Cubans can live abroad, and increasing the number of Cubans allowed to travel abroad for work. According to AP, the U.S. State Department “would certainly welcome greater freedom of movement for the Cuban public.”  The news agency quotes a shop worker in Cuba saying “It’s absurd that as a Cuban I must get permission to leave my country, and even worse that I need permission to come back.”

You might well expect the scholars at the Cuba Transition Project, which calls itself “an important and timely project to study and make recommendations for the reconstruction of Cuba once the post-Castro transition begins in earnest,” to regard these reforms as important and, if not timely, certainly long overdue.

Well, instead, they seem quite miffed, very concerned, and surprisingly negative about the whole thing.  In a broadside titled “Is Cuba Planning a Legal Mariel?” Jaime Suchlicki, the Emilio Bacardi Moreau Distinguished Professor and Director, Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, University of Miami, worries that:

  • Cubans will line up in front of foreign embassies to request tourist visas and that the U.S. Interests Section – since most Cubans want to visit the United States – would be most impacted;
  • Airlines will benefit financially from Cubans who fill their seats in flights away from Cuba;
  • It might make Cubans on the island happy(!) because the reform will eliminate one of their major complaints;
  • It’s all a secret plot by President Raúl Castro to relieve internal pressure on the island because so many Cubans will want to come to the United States.

But Dr. Suchlicki has a plan to foil the plot.  Tighten the number of visas the U.S. can give Cubans to visit here.  Stop Cuban Americans from traveling to Cuba (and giving money to their relatives who might want to make reciprocal visits).  And reduce the presence of U.S. diplomats in Cuba so fewer personnel can process an increased number of visas requests.

Why would he suggest such measures?  Because, perhaps, if Cuba’s reforms take place and Cubans can travel freely to the U.S. and elsewhere, the only government restricting its citizens from traveling to Cuba will be ours.  He seems to be saying, forget the liberty interests of average Cubans; Dr. Suchlicki just doesn’t want us to be embarrassed.

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