No Introduction

May 9, 2014

“Let me now introduce someone who needs no introduction.”

It is a weird custom of the Washington windbag to follow sentences like this with a lengthy introduction of the next speaker.

Normally, this is pointless, since that person is most often well-known to everyone within the sound of the speaker’s voice, but the introduction is made nonetheless.

In that spirit, we’d like to begin the News Blast this week with some introductions of our own.

Let’s start with Assistant Secretaries of State Roberta Jacobson and Tom Malinowski who, as McClatchy reported, testified this week against imposing punitive economic sanctions on Venezuela.

Jacobson, who spoke for State’s Western Hemisphere Affairs Bureau, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that hitting Venezuela’s government with sanctions as a tactic to cool its political crisis “would serve to reinforce a narrative of the Venezuelan government standing up to the United States — rather than the Venezuelan people standing up for themselves.”

Malinowski, speaking for State’s Human Rights Bureau, added on sanctions:  “They work in some places, they don’t work everywhere. Timing is extremely important.”

These top State Department policymakers who oppose sanctions on Venezuela should discuss their “counterproductive” effects with the people who maintain our fifty-plus year old embargo on the government and people of Cuba.

While we’re at it, let’s also introduce the State Department policymakers who track Cuba on the fight against illegal drugs and terrorism.

In March, when the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs released a report giving high marks to Cuba’s counter-narcotics efforts, it said “Cuba demonstrates increasing willingness to apprehend and turn over U.S. fugitives and to assist in U.S. judicial proceedings by providing documentation, witnesses and background for cases in U.S. state and federal Courts.”

Yet, barely one month later, when the Bureau of Counterterrorism released the 2013 Report on the State Sponsors of Terror, it said “The Cuban government continued to harbor fugitives wanted in the United States” to justify keeping Cuba on the list.

Different fugitives, we know.  But, shouldn’t these guys talk?

Our last introduction is for Secretary of State, John Kerry, who gave a speech about the importance of entrepreneurship at a gathering of the Council of the Americas this week.  At the end, he zeroed in on Cuba.

Secretary Kerry is worried that the Cuban people will “continue to be left behind (economically) as the rest of the hemisphere advances,” unless more can be done to strengthen “the emerging micro-entrepreneurial sector in Cuba.”

There is no shortage of ideas for stimulating more economic activity in Cuba.  One came from Gary Becker, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, a staunch conservative and an anti-communist.  In March, Becker, who died this week, wrote: “It is time to end the embargo on the export and import of goods and services between the United States and Cuba. The Cuban people will benefit almost immediately.”

Also this week, the Boston Globe, Secretary Kerry’s hometown newspaper, made the political case for economic engagement with Cuba:

“There’s a reason why the United States doesn’t normally cut all ties to countries with repressive regimes. Economic engagement can be as powerful, or more powerful, a force for change than isolation. It doesn’t erase tensions with offending regimes, but rather puts more pressure on them. It expresses to the people living under the regime a desire for cooperation; opportunities to better understand each other; and a closer look at American-style freedoms and democracy.”

Despite these powerful arguments — that ending economic sanctions would provide Cubans with greater economic opportunity and the chance for greater freedoms, just as Secretary Kerry said he wanted in his speech — there’s a catch.   To accomplish these goals, we’d have to introduce him to the same person who kept Cuba on the State Sponsors of Terror List and who will not advocate publicly for increased travel and trade opportunities for Americans and Cubans.

By now, we’re sure you’re on to us.  There is a reason the Venezuela sanctions people don’t need an introduction to the Cuba Sanctions people, or the officials tracking drug fugitives to the policy makers who keep the terror list, or the supporters of microenterprise to the supporters of economic sanctions.

They’re all the same guys.  A lot of them smart and really good people.

It is the problem that needs no introduction, familiar to all within the sound of our voice.

Until our leaders confront the hardliners in Congress and the political culture that keeps these irrational, inconsistent, and ineffective policies in place, they’ll just go on behaving like people who’ve never met.

Read the rest of this entry »


ZunZuneo: Is it Obama’s Elián moment?

April 11, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the rest of this entry »


Colonel Campbell, Guantánamo, and righting wrongs

March 21, 2014

When Army Col. Larry Campbell approached the podium on February 22nd to deliver his remarks to The Black Heritage Organization to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, he did nothing wrong.

To the contrary, he spoke truths that deserved the attention of a wider audience.

In his address, Col. Campbell was plainspoken about our nation’s history of racism and resentment; about the generations who came and went without enjoying full and equal dimensions of their citizenship; and the walls of resistance that the Civil Rights Movement had to scale in the – still incomplete – fight for equality.

He said with pride that “military formations are fully integrated,” without pausing over the remarkable fact that the armed services were the first major American institution to integrate or the hard truth that it took five years for Harry Truman’s executive order to be implemented for 95% of African American soldiers to serve in integrated units.

Col. Campbell used the occasion to express his abiding faith in the democratic process and in his country’s capacity for self-correction.  Yet, neither we nor you would have heard about his speech had the news about the event not been subject to such ridicule.

Why? Because the Black Heritage Organization, which held its annual Black History Month banquet, and invited Col. Campbell to speak, happens to be located at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

Yes, Guantánamo; where books like “The Gulag Archipelago” and “The African American Slave” cannot be read by the prisoners who are detained there; where the prisoner detentions compromise the position of the United States on human and civil rights.

So, when an article was published with the headline, GTMO celebrates 50 years of civil rights in America, well-meaning bloggers just couldn’t help themselves.  What followed was snark like this, “I can’t say much for the event, but that headline…,” and snark like this, “It’s a holiday in Guantánamo!”  It was all about the jokes, without making much time for understanding what was really going on.

That’s a shame.  Neither Col. Campbell nor the Black Heritage Organization are responsible for what is taking place on Guantánamo now, nor are they accountable for the larger historical error represented by the U.S. hanging onto Cuban land, or U.S.-Cuba policy writ large.

We need to be clear about Guantánamo.

We talked about it in our book about promoting U.S.-Cuba engagement, in the chapter contributed by Gen. James T. Hill, who wrote about the cooperation that takes place over the fence posts between Cuba’s armed forces (FAR) and our own military, and the work they could do together to enhance both country’s security.

Like many of our readers, we would like to see the prison at Guantánamo closed for good.  We supported the patriotic efforts of former White House counsel Greg Craig to achieve this objective. While gestures like the one offered by Uruguay’s President José Mujica, who expressed his willingness to accept Guantánamo detainees into his country, alleviate some of the suffering, we hope that Clifford Sloan is able to complete the job Greg Craig started, and soon.

Plans exist — like the detailed proposal crafted by Michael Parmly, former chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana — for addressing the issue of the detainees imprisoned at Guantánamo, and returning rightful ownership to Cuba of land that’s been wrongfully under U.S. control for over a century. The European Union is hard at work changing its foreign policy toward Cuba.

In other words, the problems of U.S.-Cuban relations and Guantánamo do not require new proposals or special thinking to get solved; they require leadership and the determination to make decisions and see them through to the end, the same ingredients that made the integration of the U.S. military and the passage of the Civil Rights Act possible.

Those of us who advocate for Cuba policy reform, but are discouraged by the pace of change in Washington, might take hope from the message that Col. Campbell delivered at Guantánamo’s Civil Rights Act celebration: “History has always afforded this Nation the ability to right a wrong and press forward by not repeating the same mistakes of the past.”

We couldn’t agree more.  That’s why we wanted to bring the Colonel’s speech to our readers’ attention.

Read the rest of this entry »