Is it a Plane? Is it a Paddleboard? Or is it Grounded?

August 2, 2013

Today, we consider Cuba policy from the sky, sea, dry land, and through the eyes of a friend.

In the sky:  Congress fled Washington this week without getting much done on the federal budget.  So, this was a well-timed moment for John Hudson, national security correspondent for The Cable, to start his essay “Anti-Cuba effort deserves to die,” with the following:

“It’s difficult to find a more wasteful government program. For the last six years, the U.S. government has spent more than $24 million to fly a plane around Cuba and beam American-sponsored TV programming to the island’s inhabitants. But every day the plane flies, the government in Havana jams its broadcast signal. Few, if any, Cubans can see what it broadcasts.”

Hudson notes that U.S. taxpayers have shelled out over a half-billion dollars to fund programming by Radio and TV Martí since 1985. The Martís were launched as part of the U.S. government’s on-going efforts to overthrow the Cuban government or, as the State Department’s Inspector-General wrote in 2007, to “Undermine the regime’s ‘succession strategy’.”

Unsurprisingly, the Cuban government jammed the signal from the get-go.  But, this didn’t daunt our policymakers.  After failing to overcome Cuba’s disruption of the signal by floating a blimp over the island, they moved to transmitting signals from airborne platforms flying under the banner of AeroMartí.  Since 2006, the government has owned up to spending at least $5.9 million annually to get the Martí’s broadcast content, still jammed by Cuba, to its intended audience.  So far, no such luck.

Ironically, Aero Martí is stuck at its base in Georgia due to the budget cuts – known in Washington speak as “sequestration” – which the gridlocked Congress couldn’t undo before it left on vacation.  You can see a picture of the plane here.  As we report in the blast below, even the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the Martís overseers, want to kill the program.  But, Hudson says Sen. Robert Menendez (NJ) and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, (FL-27) are forcing the boondoggle to continue.

Before leaving town, Rep. Ros-Lehtinen issued a statement announcing her support for unrelated legislation, The Taxpayer Bill of Rights, but said nothing about taxpayers’ rights or saving money by grounding permanently AeroMartí.

On the sea: By the time you read this, we’ll know the fate of Benjamin Schiller Friberg.  Thursday evening, the thirty-five year-old surfer jumped into the water in the Martína Hemingway with a paddleboard aiming to cross the Florida Strait from Cuba to Key West.

Before departing Cuba, he explained why he was taking his risky voyage, “this trip is to promote peace, love and friendship between the peoples of Cuba and of United States, as well as a healthy lifestyle.”

We can only imagine how disdainful the embargo supporters must be – the ones who hold AeroMartí aloft –of a surfer seeking peace and love by traveling across the same waters that Cuban rafters have navigated seeking new lives in the United States.

We hope he reaches his goal safely. Even more, we hope people hear the message he’s sending.  Every day, we read stories (like this one by Jeff Franks of Reuters) about how people-to-people travelers jump through hoops, and carefully observe excessive government regulations, just to visit Cuba. They must do so because our government’s policy is based on the misguided premise of objecting to restrictions placed on Cubans by limiting the freedom of our fellow citizens to visit them.

Every surfboard, every trip like the one taken by Beyonce and Jay-Z, every effort by U.S. scientists to overcome obstacles to work with Cuban counterparts on projects that reflect U.S. interests – these are all reminders that there is much to be gained by promoting cooperation between like-minded Cubans and U.S. visitors, and our government shouldn’t be standing in the way of engagement between them.

On land: At least, President Obama has both feet on the ground when it comes to encouraging contact. Yes, he enforces the embargo with astonishing zeal, and keeps signing budgets that fund the Cold War-style regime change programs.  But, he also clearly gets how good policy can help every day Cubans by promoting two-way travel.

After acting in 2009 to allow unlimited family travel by Cuban Americans, and in 2011 to restore people-to-people contacts, this week his administration expanded opportunities for Cubans to visit our country.  As the Miami Herald explained, the president used his executive authority to “make non-immigrant visas valid for five years instead of the current six months, and good for multiple entries.

“Now, eligible Cubans will be able to visit South Florida — or anywhere in the United States — for the holidays, return for a family wedding or come to tend to a sick relative without applying in person for a new visa each time.”

As the State Department explained it, “this is part of our broader policy to increase people-to-people ties between Americans and Cubans, to increase communications with the Cuban people, to promote openness.”

This approach is far better than the loopy policy of transmitting signals from planes flying figure eights over the island, and offers a more permanent solution than piloting a surfboard across the Florida Strait, so we hope the president keeps at it.

Our Friend: We’re unabashed admirers of Saul Landau.  He’s been in the thick of the reporting and analysis on Cuba and Latin America, often exposing the tragic realities of U.S. policy toward the region, for decades.  In the course of a passionate and productive life, his candid explorations of our nation’s history have educated generations and earned him the respect of journalists and the human rights community.  He’s not feeling so well these days, and we hope today’s blast – like the others before it – gave him as much joy as his work has made us think.  And we’re thinking of him, right now.

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Feliz Día del Padre

June 14, 2013

As we begin Father’s Day weekend, it seemed right to open with a brief note about family, connection, and inclusion.

During the presidency of George W. Bush, the financial and emotional support provided by members of the Cuban diaspora to their families on the island got caught in the twist of the tourniquet of U.S. sanctions.

Family visits to the island were limited to one trip every three years under a specific license, as the Congressional Research Service explained, to visit only immediate family members.   The ability to send remittances – transfers of money to kin in Cuba – was severely restricted, as was the amount of cash (from $3,000 to $300) that the limited numbers of authorized travelers could bring.  Ironically, these policy changes were driven, in part, by hardliners in the diaspora, but the sting could be felt in homes on both sides of the straits.

During the first year of his presidency, Barack Obama used his executive authority to permit unlimited family travel and remittances.  This action not only alleviated the suffering imposed on families divided by the Bush-era travel policy, but it also coincided with the process led in Cuba by President Raúl Castro to liberalize economic and social restrictions on the Cuban people.

According to a new report, Remittances Drive the Cuban Economy, issued by the Havana Consulting Group, cash remittances, from the U.S. and other nations, estimated at $2.6 billion in 2012, now compromise Cuba’s largest individual source of hard currency.  They exceed revenues derived from tourism and exports of nickel, pharmaceuticals, and sugar.

Beyond the simple and important role of helping families make ends meet, this report is not alone (see here and here) in finding that cash to Cuba from the diaspora is helping to drive the creation and expansion of entrepreneurial activity in Cuba that is enabling Cuban citizens to leave state jobs and seek their futures in Cuba’s changing economy.

For critics who carp that nothing changes in Cuba – their odd defense for keeping U.S. sanctions in place exactly as they have been for fifty plus years – the remittance report is a reminder that President Castro has engineered significant changes, that Cubans are responding, and families in the U.S. are contributing importantly to a transition that is making their family members and other Cubans more independent and ideally more prosperous.

While we believe strongly that President Obama should move further and faster on loosening the U.S. embargo of Cuba, his policy decisions in 2009 to provide unlimited family travel and remittances and create larger openings for travel and remittances in 2011 have become important drivers of economic reform and individual empowerment in Cuba, and capitalized on the family and financial strengths of the community of Cuban descent that resides in Florida and across the United States.

One last thing:  the Cuban American community, for political reasons, of course, has historically faced a different and less restrictive set of immigration rules than migrants seeking to come to the U.S. of any other nationality.

The Miami Herald noted this week that Miami-Dade county is, in their words, “a Spanish-speaking bastion where many immigrants legal and illegal can get by for years without having to speak English.”

In that bastion, they treasure family – not more and certainly not less – just like every other community that has come here from overseas.  Many of them are watching with concern as the debate on immigration takes place in Washington especially now as a new proposal is offered in the U.S. Senate to “require that undocumented immigrants be able to read, write and speak English before earning a green card.”  This amendment, paradoxically, is being written by their Senator, Marco Rubio.

We’re not experts in the field of immigration.  But, the fear being expressed by reform advocates is that adoption of this provision could scuttle chances for passing a bill or make the policy much less welcoming and generous than the authors of reform wanted and intended.

We can only hope that the wisdom behind the travel and remittance policies grounded in the values of family, connection and inclusion is brought to bear on the larger, historic immigration debate as well.

To the families reading the Cuba Central News Blast this holiday weekend, we close by saying Feliz Día del Padre, or Happy Father’s Day.

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Breaking News: René González of the Cuban Five Renounces Citizenship, to remain in Cuba

May 3, 2013

Just before we hit send, there was an important development in the case involving René González, a member of the Cuban Five.

González, who was permitted by U.S. District Court Judge Joan Lenard to travel to Cuba for two weeks under strict conditions pursuant to his probation, will renounce his citizenship and remain in Cuba. González becomes, as the Havana Times reported, the first of the five Cubans to return and reside in Cuba following their convictions.

González, who served a 13-year sentence, was allowed to return to Cuba on April 22 to attend a service for his father who died at age 82.

But, González, a U.S. citizen, is permitted under the laws of the United States to renounce his citizenship to a consular official while visiting a foreign nation.  The court has the power to modify his probation accordingly, and enable González to serve the remainder of his term in Cuba without reporting to the court.

Attorneys for González filed a motion to modify his probation, to remove a requirement imposed by the court that he return to the U.S. by May 6th, clearing the way for him to renounce his citizenship and stay in Cuba.

The U.S. Department of Justice told the court that it would not oppose González’s request, and the “Government indicated that ‘the FBI has concluded that the national security interests of the United States are furthered if the defendant…does not return to the United States.”

That led Judge Lenard to issue an order today modifying his probation and allowing him to renounce his U.S. citizenship and not return.

According to the Associated Press, González is thrilled but wants a chance to review the judge’s decision.  “First I have to read the order,” he said. “If the order is real, it will be a great relief to me.”

González was convicted for acting as an unregistered agent of a foreign government, conspiracy to act as a foreign agent and to defraud the United States.

González, along with Gerardo Hernández, Ramón Labañino, Antonio Guerrero, and Fernando González, were arrested in 1998, for their roles in efforts to track Miami groups who, according to Cuba’s government, were responsible for terror attacks against the island.

The case of the Cuban Five has been a significant obstacle in U.S.-Cuba relations.  As Peter Kornbluh wrote in The Nation last month:

“The Cubans are holding US subcontractor Alan Gross, now in his fourth year of incarceration for illicitly attempting to set up a satellite communications network in Cuba as part of the US Agency for International Development’s Cuba Democracy and Contingency Planning Program. And the United States is holding the ‘Cuban Five,’ who include four Cuban spies, now in their fifteenth year in prison for conducting espionage operations, mostly against exile groups with violent pasts…Raúl Castro has called for mutual ‘humanitarian gestures’ to resolve these obstacles to improved bilateral relations.”

This case is controversial in the U.S. and complicated for domestic political reasons in both countries.  The decision by Judge Lenard, available here, may not bring relief to the families of Alan Gross or other members of the Five who remain in prison in the U.S., but it is a welcomed development in any case.

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

Cuba to remain on State Sponsors of Terrorism List

The State Department has missed its April 30th deadline to file its Country Report on Terrorism, and it is now expected to be released in late May.  Cuba watchers hoped the report would reveal a decision to drop Cuba from the state sponsors of terror list. According to The Hill, a State Department spokesperson indicated that release of the report is not used as a vehicle to announce decisions to add or drop countries, and that Cuba when the list is published will retain its designation.

But, as the Miami Herald reported, that does not rule out the possibility that at any time in the future, the U.S. government can decide that Cuba should be removed from the state sponsors list.

On a related matter, Joanne Chesimard, a fugitive living in Cuba, was added this week to the FBI’s list of Most Wanted Terrorists.  Chesimard, a former member of the Black Panthers and the Black Liberation Army, who goes by the name Assata Shakur, escaped from prison in 1979, and received asylum in Cuba in 1984.  She was convicted of murder in the 1970s for her role in a shootout which left a New Jersey state trooper dead.

Although the Associated Press reported that Cuba does not have an extradition treaty with the U.S., according to the website of the U.S. Department of State, such a treaty is in place.  While the countries cooperate on fugitive cases from time to time, they rarely observe the treaty.

Although the issue of fugitives plays no statutory role in determining whether a country is a state sponsor of terror, the U.S. government said in last year’s report, “The Cuban government continued to permit fugitives wanted in the United States to reside in Cuba and also provided support such as housing, food ration books, and medical care for these individuals.”

59 in Congress sign letter urging Obama to end travel restrictions to Cuba

Representative Sam Farr (CA-20) sent a letter signed by 59 Members of Congress to President Obama urging the administration to expand the right of Americans to travel to Cuba.  Their proposal would build on Obama’s decision in 2011, which restored people-to-people travel, and allow all categories of permissible travel to Cuba be carried out under a general license. In a press release Farr points out that “there are no better ambassadors for democratic ideals than the American people” and that “a pragmatic policy of citizen diplomacy can be a powerful catalyst for democratic development in Cuba.”

The full text of the letter is available here.

Seasonal flights to resume between Tampa and Holguín, Cuba

The Tampa International Airport (TIA) announced that after a three-month hiatus, seasonal flights to Holguín, Cuba, will resume in June, reports the Tampa Bay Times. Until February of this year, TIA had offered five flights to Cuba each week, but discontinued two because of low demand and stiff competition.

IN CUBA

Over 2,000 of Cuba’s state-owned businesses now in private sector

Since 2009, over 2,000 formerly state-owned businesses in Cuba have been leased to private management, reports EFE. The initiative to shift the management of state-operated businesses began as an experiment with barbershops and hair salons in 2009. Since then, the changes have grown to include 47 economic activities, employing over 5,000 people. The shift gives employees of the formerly state-operated businesses the ability to manage the business and set prices, while collectively handling the costs of rent and utilities. Employees have some complaints, such as tax burdens and a lack of wholesale markets where businesses can buy supplies. However, both the government and workers have acknowledged that this new arrangement has improved service, reduced absenteeism, and increased employee salaries.

Cuba celebrates International Worker’s Day

As President Raúl Castro presided over Cuba’s May Day parade in Havana, First Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel led the celebration in Santiago de Cuba, reports ACN.  This year’s theme was “For a more prosperous and sustainable form of socialism” and the late President Chávez of Venezuela was honored, reports Havana Times (article and slideshow).

Victoria Burnett of the New York Times reports on May Day in a changing Cuba, where private sector workers joined state sector workers in the celebrations in Havana.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Nicolás Maduro pays official visit to Cuba

Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro visited Havana last Saturday on his first official trip to Cuba since taking office, reports EFE. While in Cuba, Maduro met with President Raúl Castro and took part in the 13th Meeting of the Cuba-Venezuela Intergovernmental Commission. The commission signed 51 bilateral agreements, and pledged to spend $2 billion on bilateral social development programs this year, reports Reuters. The agreements regarding energy management and social programs follow Maduro’s campaign promise to continue the relationship Hugo Chávez forged with Cuba.

Cuba undergoes Human Rights Review at UN

This week, the UN Human Rights Council performed its Universal Periodic Review of Cuba, a process that takes place every four years for each member country. During the review, several governments recommended that Cuba extend an open invitation for visits by UN human rights experts. In response, Bruno Rodríguez, Cuba’s Minister of Foreign Relations, extended a permanent welcome to such experts, on the condition that the purpose of the visits be “non-discriminatory” and impartial, reports EFE.

Rodríguez further stated that “Cuba will never accept a process of regime change,” from UN member countries, specifically referencing suggestions made by the U.S.

Rodríguez presented evidence of Cuba’s advances in human rights, citing the country’s universally accessible education and healthcare systems. His complete statement for the Universal Periodic Review is available here.

According to the Miami Herald, UN Watch, a Geneva-based NGO affiliated with the American Jewish Committee, said Cuba had committed fraud “on a massive scale” to influence the Council’s review of its human rights record.

FAO Director General visits Cuba

On Friday, José Graziano da Silva, Director General of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations arrived in Havana to meet with Cuban government officials, reports Cubadebate. While in Cuba, Graziano will discuss food security programs with officials such as Minister of Foreign Relations Rodríguez; Vice President Marino Murillo; Gustavo Rodríguez Rollero, the Minister of Agriculture; and Félix González Viego, President of the National Association of Small Farmers.

Ministry of Foreign Trade and Investment ends contract with Canadian firm Tokmakjian

Cuba’s government has officially ended the operations of Canadian firm Tokmakjian Group, reports Café Fuerte. The conglomerate had operated on the island for the past 25 years, until a 2011 corruption scandal resulted in the closing of the company’s offices in Havana and the arrest of the company’s head, Cy Tokmakjian. Until now, the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Investment had not taken any major action against the company. Tokmakjian Group’s operations were the second largest of any foreign enterprise on the island, selling mining and construction equipment as well as cars and car parts.

President Raúl Castro has led a nationwide campaign against corruption, which has seen the arrest of several high-level foreign business representatives, as well as Cuban nationals. In a 2011 speech, Castro stated that corruption in Cuba “is equivalent to counter-revolution,” encouraging the government to be relentless in its campaign as corruption “could lead to self-destruction.”

China fulfills Cuba cargo ship order

Shanghai Shipyard Co. Ltd. has delivered the sixth of ten cargo ships that Cuba had ordered from China, reports Cuba Standard. The additional 35,000-ton grain cargo ships are expected to increase Cuba’s maritime trading capacity with nations far from the Caribbean. In addition, the ships will lower the cost of grain shipments to Cuba, which often come at a premium cost due to the sanctions prohibiting ships coming from Cuba to dock at U.S. ports.

350 Cuban doctors sent to Ghana

As a part of the recently-renewed Ghana-Cuba Medical Service and Educational Agreement, 350 Cuban doctors arrived in Ghana on Wednesday, reports the Daily Graphic. The agreement aims to improve Ghana’s doctor-to-patient ratio, which now stands at one doctor to every 10,000 patients. Ghana matched Cuba’s contribution by sending 250 young Ghanaians to Cuba for medical training. The Ghanaian-Cuban partnership began twenty years ago and is renewed every two years.

Around the Region

U.S. citizen accused of conspiracy against Venezuela’s government

U.S. citizen Timothy Hallett Tracy, arrested in Venezuela last Wednesday, was accused of sowing unrest in the country, reports La Jornada. According to The Guardian, Tracy was in Venezuela as a documentary filmmaker and spent time interviewing people on both sides of the country’s political spectrum. Gloria Stifano, Tracy’s lawyer, clarified that he is the subject of an investigation and so far “nobody has said that he is criminally responsible,” reports El Universal. She also stated that his human rights would be respected, and he will not be imprisoned.

National Electoral Council discloses timeline and procedures for secondary audit

Venezuela’s National Electoral Council (CNE) has released a statement outlining a timetable and detailing procedures for a secondary audit of Venezuela’s recent presidential election. The audit was agreed to in response to a formal request by former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles. However, the CNE clarified that some of Capriles’s demands are “impracticable.”

Venezuela’s opposition claims to have lost last month’s election due to massive fraud, prompting the CNE to state, “Anyone who puts forward charges on such a scale must provide a minimum of necessary elements in order to ascertain whether these charges are indeed suppositions of fact.” According to the CNE, the investigation demanded by the opposition into alleged complaints of irregularities in the voting process is not possible given the incomplete documentation it provided which does not clearly indicate “which polling booths; which records; who is involved” and provides no “precision whatsoever regarding possible damage to the vote.”

Bolivia expels USAID

In a May Day declaration, Bolivia’s President Evo Morales announced the expulsion of USAID, reports BBC. Morales said the move is to protest a remark by Secretary of State John Kerry in which he described Latin America as the “backyard” of the United States. USAID’s operations in Bolivia focused on counter-narcotics and military initiatives. Bolivia, along with six of the eight ALBA countries, signed a resolution last June calling for all member states to expel the agency.  For further analysis of the USAID program, see our feature in Recommended Reading.

El Salvador Update: April, 2013, Linda Garrett, Center for Democracy in the Americas

Linda Garrett, CDA’s Senior Policy Analyst on El Salvador, discusses developments that have taken place in El Salvador during the month of April, including President Funes’ visit to Washington, D.C. and his announcement of formalized support for the country’s historic gang truce and peace process.  The update covers developments in the presidential race and in the U.S. trials against former Salvadoran military officials. It also includes a detailed chronology of El Salvador’s (gang truce) peace process, and a map of municipalities that have joined the “Violence-Free Municipalities” program.

If you would like to receive the Monthly El Salvador Update via email, contact: ElSalvadorUpdate@democracyinamericas.org.  

Recommended Reading

Special Feature: Along the Malecón: In Cuba: USAID Flies Into the Cuckoo’s Nest

Investigative journalist Tracey Eaton examines how schizophrenic U.S. policy toward Cuba can be.  Eaton provides examples drawn from USAID’s program there noting that while typical development programs seek to alleviate poverty, USAID’s work in Cuba is framed by legislation whose real goal is “to increase poverty, not reduce it.”

Amid Fealty to Socialism, a Nod to Capitalism, Victoria Burnett, New York Times

Havana’s May Day Parade now acts as a curious metaphor for Cuba’s changing economy, writes Victoria Burnett. Private and government-owned businesses work together and learn from each other, as the inefficiencies of the purely state-run economy are being replaced with a new entrepreneurial spirit within the private sector. The growing number of private sector workers in the parade expressed that participating is a way to show solidarity with all workers on the island, public or private.

Havana’s Classic Taxis Get a Taste of Competition, EFE

For the first time in decades, taxis in Cuba – especially in Havana – are facing increased competition. As the city continues to experience serious transportation problems, a boom in licenses for private taxi drivers has made the competition for customers fierce. Private taxi licenses make up 11% of the 400,000 private licenses registered in Cuba.

Shakur’s addition to Most Wanted Terrorist List reeks of Cuba Lobby desperation, William Vidal, On Two Shores

William Vidal of On Two Shores analyzes the news of the past few months about Cuba’s place on the State Department’s list of State Sponsors of Terrorism; beginning with reports in February that Cuba would be removed from the list and culminating in this week’s announcement that Cuba will remain on the list.

Political calculus keeps Cuba on U.S. list of terror sponsors, Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times

Carol J. Williams examines the political considerations in keeping Cuba on the State Department’s list of State Sponsors of Terrorism, even as national security analysts call the designation “counterproductive,” and note that there is no evidence indicating that Cuba is a national security threat to the U.S.

The Impact of Telesur and Cuba’s Media Crisis, Fernando Ravsberg, Havana Times

Fernando Ravsberg of the Havana Times analyzes the effects of Telesur’s broadcast in Cuba, contrasting the news coverage with Cuba’s national television.

Recommended Viewing

A glimpse inside Cuba’s high security prisons, Sarah Rainsford, BBC

Leading up to Cuba’s Universal Periodic Review at the UN, the government opened several prisons for foreign journalists. Here, the BBC’s Sarah Rainsford gets a rare tour of one of Cuba’s high security prisons.

A FINAL WORD:

THE ROAD FROM NEW YORK TO PHILADELPHIA GETS SHORTER

For some time, the Equality Forum, an organization dedicated to advancing LGBT rights, planned a 2013 summit with Cuba as its featured nation and Mariela Castro, Director of the Cuban National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX) as its honored guest.

The summit, being held in Philadelphia, May 2-5, coincided with meetings related to United Nations population policy in New York.  Ms. Castro was granted a diplomatic visa that got her to New York to visit the UN, and she applied for permission from the State Department to go beyond the 25-mile barrier that prevents high-ranking Cubans from moving about the country as freely as diplomats and citizens from other nations are permitted to do in the U.S., so she could attend the summit.

Her request apparently posed too big a dilemma for the decision makers at State.  After all, this is the same Mariela Castro who was recognized in the Department’s 2012 Human Rights Report for being “outspoken in promoting the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons,” and who was granted a visa to attend the 2012 Latin American Studies Association conference in San Francisco.

But the 97 miles between New York and Philadelphia was simply too much for the Department to handle.  As the New York Times reported last week, State denied her request “without explanation.”  Understandably so; how could you explain why it’s alright for Mariela Castro to visit Manhattan and discuss population policy but not okay to attend an equality conference down the New Jersey Turnpike to talk about AIDS?

Their position was not sustainable.  It took less than four days for the State Department to change its mind, reverse the decision, and give Ms. Castro permission go all the way to the City of Brotherly Love to speak and receive her award.  CNN reported on the development here.

This made some hardliners very unhappy.  Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-27) issued a statement denouncing the decision, “For a person like Mariela Castro to attend a conference on civil rights for lesbians, gays, bisexual and transgender people, and to receive an award, is shameful, pathetic and a ruse. The words ‘equality’ and ‘human rights’ don’t exist in the vocabulary of the Castro tyranny.”  Inexplicably, the Babalú website protested the decision by publishing an old picture of Madonna kissing Britney Spears.   They were really upset.

Why? These opponents of engagement with Cuba have never been fans of Mariela Castro, but we suspect that something larger here is at play.

After all, the State Department didn’t give in to the impulse to stick with a decision that made the U.S. bad just to make the hardliners happy.  Instead, it changed its mind.

Think about that.  We know that State is keeping Cuba on the State Sponsors of Terror list for 2013, but the law enables the U.S. government to remove its designation by notifying Congress and reporting the reasons for doing so. It can change its mind.  Maybe State won’t.  But, at least it’s the other side that is going to be up at night thinking they might.


The Democracy Promotion Paradox – or why Americans hate politics

February 8, 2013

Sometimes our Cuba policy is so farcical, it’s impossible to keep a straight face.

Consider poor Pedro Adriano Borges, age 68 who, according to the Miami Herald is awaiting trial in federal court.  He is charged with ten violations of the Trading with the Enemy Act, money laundering, and other crimes for which he could spend 35 years in prison if convicted.  The underlying charge is this: he shipped $93,000 worth of goods – including light bulbs and diapers, spices and mayonnaise – to Cuba before Congress authorized food trade with the island.  Opening the market to mayonnaise might be considered a crime against Cuban cuisine, but he should hardly be facing jail time in 2013 for an activity that’s been legal for a decade.

Other times, however, the policy is not just farcical, but so internally inconsistent that it edges in the direction of tragedy.  Consider what we continue to learn about the USAID democracy promotion or regime change programs.

The Government Accountability Office issued a report on the programs this week.  Unlike prior studies, which disclosed that U.S. recipients of the funds were wasting them on Godiva chocolates, cashmere sweaters, and Nintendo Game Boys, GAO said the program was being operated with tighter internal controls.  This – along with headlines like “U.S. government report says America’s democracy programs have improved” –undoubtedly delighted USAID, which just last month read this story in the Washington Post:  “Interference with bid-rigging probe alleged at USAID.”

In fact, Marc Lopes, head of USAID’s Latin American and Caribbean section, told the Herald in a phone interview, “We have increased transparency and financial monitoring, and we are pleased that GAO has recognized that.”

But, remember, the GAO makes judgments about accounting, not about policy.  As the Miami Herald reported, U.S. taxpayers have spent more than $205 million dollars on democracy promotion activities since 1996.  There is no evidence that the programs are achieving their objective of hastening a democratic transition in Cuba.  Phil Peters says it well on his Cuban Triangle Blog:

“So the dollars are well accounted for, but as to whether they are being spent in ways that make a positive difference, well, that’s outside the scope of the report.

“Which is worth noting because in the case of USAID’s satellite Internet program run by Alan Gross and other grantees, the dollars may have been perfectly managed and 100 percent accounted for, but they were 100 percent wasted because these operations were rolled up by Cuban intelligence.”

Wasted and obscured from public view.  There is another version of the report, “sensitive but unclassified,” that GAO won’t allow U.S. taxpayers to see.  Even worse, Tracey Eaton, an investigative reporter with whom our organization is working, discovered that USAID hired an outside contractor to review the programs, which found “questionable charges and weaknesses in partners’ financial management, procurement standards, and internal controls.”   But when Mr. Eaton filed a Freedom of Information Act request to get a copy of the outside audit, USAID fought him and then provided only ten pages of material that “omit most findings, recommendations and other key information, including the identity of the aid recipients named in the audit.”

This is more than a little odd coming from USAID which recently gave a $25 million grant to researchers at the University of Texas…(wait for it)….to develop tools that will “Increase Global Aid Transparency.”

Not only that, Mr. Eaton requested an interview with Mr. Lopes a little more than a week ago, and he declined.

Can someone stop the pain?

Not if what President Eisenhower might have called The Cuba-Industrial Complex has anything to say about it.  Although there was scant public mention of democracy promotion at John Kerry’s confirmation hearing, a new round of questions and answers about the program popped up in the Congressional Record, according to “Capitol Hill Cubans,” an eager supporter of regime change in Cuba.

In testimony apparently provided for the record –questions asked and answered in private – Senator Marco Rubio urged Mr. Kerry not to negotiate with Cuba to obtain Alan Gross’s release; not to shut down or rollback democracy programs; and to scrutinize the already legal people-to-people trips to Cuba.  You can read Kerry’s responses here.  We think he gave Senator Rubio no quarter.  To date, Mr. Kerry has made no public statements about whether he’d change the programs that he tried to reform as a member of the U.S. Senate.

But, the bodyguards surrounding USAID’s Cuba programs – the contractors, the pro-sanctions Senators, the array of publicists and polemicists aligned with them – will continue resisting the scrutiny and long-overdue public debate that ought to take place about these wasteful, ineffective, covert-but-not-classified programs that antagonize Cuba and which turn Latin America more broadly against us.

We are reminded of what E.J. Dionne wrote in “Why Americans Hate Politics” –

“With democracy on the march outside our borders, our first responsibility is to ensure that the United States becomes a model for what self-government should be and not an example of what happens to free nations when they lose interest in public life.”

Such is the democracy promotion paradox.

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Like Wishing Upon a Star: Most Travel Restrictions (On Cubans) Vanish Monday

January 11, 2013

Next week, when Cuba drops travel restrictions on most of its citizens, Ana Liliam Garcia, a 16-year-old, plans on chasing a dream:  “I would like to see Disneyland in the United States,” she told the Associated Press.  “I’ll be able to travel!”

You can argue whether this represents a triumph of American culture. But, these reforms really matter, and they ought to take the discussion about U.S. policy and Cuba to a different level.

Cuba’s government imposed travel restrictions on its citizens in the early 1960s as the country experienced a “brain drain” following the Revolution.  For decades, Cubans detested the limitations symbolized by the tarjeta blanca or white card, the exit permit they had to obtain through a costly and convoluted bureaucratic process.  This restriction on the right of Cubans to leave and return to their country has been a deep source of concern to the global human rights community and a predicate for U.S. criticism of Cuba’s system.

Last fall, President Raúl Castro’s government announced an overhaul of its migration laws which will take effect on Monday.  Beginning January 14th, Cubans will need only a visa and a valid passport to leave their country; the white card will vanish, fees will be reduced, and official permission to come and go will no longer be required for most Cubans.

Some obstacles – for military officers, top scientists, and highly prized athletes – will remain in place.  Dissidents are not likely to be free to come and go.  Of course, Cuba’s decision not to change everything is already an excuse among hardliners in the U.S. for saying that Cuba hasn’t changed anything.

But, as Reuters reports, the verdict among the people whose interests are most directly affected is clearly being rendered.  Hundreds of Cubans are waiting in long lines to apply for passports in advance of the reforms becoming effective. As one Cuban told NPR, “These measures that the government is taking are a good step. Our rights have been oppressed for too long, but Cuba is changing.”

We hope President Obama is paying attention.  He has undertaken incremental but worthwhile reforms in U.S. policy, while simultaneously denying that anything meaningful has been taking place in Cuba during his presidency.  After Cuba released scores of political prisoners following talks with the Catholic Church; after the Castro government implemented the most significant changes in its economic model in six decades; after Colombia turned to Cuba to help it broker peace talks with the FARC, U.S. policy remains in an official state of denial that its goals are being met.

Cuba did not initiate these sweeping travel reforms to elicit a positive reaction from the U.S.  It long ago wearied from the repetitive process of doing things it wanted to do – that the U.S. also wanted done – only to find that U.S. policy had adopted new demands.  It will be hard for them to imagine that this time will be any different.

But, is it really possible that President Obama will feel comfortable ignoring another tangible change in the Cuban reality and insist, as he has said about Cuba so often, “If we see positive movement then we will respond in a positive way.”  Especially now that Cubans will have more freedom to see the world than American citizens have to visit Cuba?

This time, it shouldn’t be that hard.  If Ana Liliam Garcia doesn’t have to wish upon a star to have her chance to see Disneyland, that’s a real change.  It merits a real response.

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To Ring in the New, we have to Wring out the Old way of Doing Things

January 4, 2013

At the beginning of 2013, there’s a lot of attention being paid to the precarious health of Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chavez, fighting his cancer in a Havana hospital.  While some of the analysis seems genuine and reality-based – see, for example, Caracas Connect here, Just the Facts here, and the New York Times here – there is also a lot of the same ghoulishness and immaturity that arises whenever the health of former President Fidel Castro appears uncertain.

Any idea of advancing the U.S.-Venezuela relationship, such as posting ambassadors in either country’s capital, appears to be captive to Mr. Chavez and his mortality.  It’s not just an odd, but also a self-defeating way to run relations with one of our most important trading partners in the region.  Worse, it’s based on a broken model (see the Helms-Burton prohibition on the U.S. government recognizing Cuba’s government until both Fidel and Raúl Castro have parted from the scene).

But this is all very much part of an enduring flaw of U.S. foreign policy; namely, its preoccupation with the identity of who is running a country and its subordination of things which matter more – like deciding what demonstrates our national character or what defines and realizes our national interest.

Consider, for example, the retirement of Harry Henry, age 82, and Luis La Rosa, age 79, who recently completed six-decades of service as Cuban nationals working at the Navy’s Guantanamo Air Base in Cuba.  As the Miami Herald reported, they left work in December after a celebration of their service, but with complete uncertainty about whether they would be paid by the U.S. government the pensions that they earned.

Today, the Herald reports that a solution was found, but those of us who pay taxes in the U.S. to support the Pentagon will not be told which public servant in the Department of Defense allowed his sense of character to prevail over his government’s ideological inflexibility in order to work with Cuba to find a solution and pay the pensioners what they are owed.

Or consider the news from the peace talks brokered by Cuba and other nations, conducted in Havana, between the government of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.  Earlier this week, the Associated Press reported that Colombia’s President Juan Miguel Santos “insisted” that the talks not be held in Colombia, but pressed the FARC to have the negotiations in Cuba “for security above all because it guaranteed confidentiality,” according to the brother of President Santos.

We don’t know whether the talks will succeed, but it forces us to wonder whether a public servant in the U.S. Department of State might be stricken with conscience and speak up before his ideologically inflexible government continues listing Cuba as a state sponsor of terror because it allows members of the FARC in Cuba.  Taking Cuba off the list, as a column in the Los Angeles Times said earlier this year, “would restore some degree of seriousness to the exercise…and pave the way for further counter-terrorism cooperation between [our two] countries,” important benefits for the national interest.

And, finally, consider the question, who is running our policy really?  In “Can Kerry make friends with Cuba?” Nick Miroff writes:

Regardless of Kerry’s record on Cuba policy in the Senate, analysts say he will face several obstacles to major change, not least of which will be the man likely to replace him as chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey), a Cuban American.

“On Latin America, in general, I think Kerry has a longer and broader vision,” said Robert Pastor, professor of international relations at American University. But when it comes to Cuba…changing US policy is not a high priority for him, but not changing US policy is the only priority for Bob Menendez,” Pastor said.

As a nation we begin the new year much as we left the old: with a policy that long-ago outlived any usefulness it offered during the Cold War, driven by personalities, and held captive by the medical conditions of leaders with whom our government disagrees, rather than being guided by what, in fact, is in the national interest and consistent with the national character of the U.S.

The alternative is what the editors of Bloomberg wrote on December 31st:

“We hope that the 51st year of the U.S. embargo against Cuba will be its last. Obama eased some restrictions in his first term — and he won half the Cuban-American vote in November. He can now encourage free-market advocates in Cuba by lifting sanctions that even most Cuban-Americans don’t think serve any purpose — the sooner the better, given the flood of Cuban émigrés that new travel freedoms may begin to unleash this month.”

Happy New Year.

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Women at Work in Cuba

December 7, 2012

Hello Friends,

This is Lisa writing from the Cuba Central team. This past week, Sarah Stephens, CDA’s executive director, and I  took a delegation of 22 women on a people-to-people trip to Cuba.  We worked in collaboration with the Women Donors Network, an organization of philanthropists from across the U.S. Our goal was to introduce them to some of our closest friends in Cuba – the people with whom we have been closely engaged on our latest report: “Women’s Work: Gender Equality in Cuba and the Role of Women in Building Cuba’s Future.”

This publication focuses on Cuban women and the issues of gender equality on the island; the real, measurable progress for women and children in areas like health, education, and legal rights, and the gap that still exists between their aspirations for equality and the reality of their everyday lives.

The book will be published at the beginning of next year (watch this space for news!). On one of our final evenings in Cuba, we held a celebration to mark the completion of the book, which brought together many of the women who have contributed to this project over the past several years. They included:

Antonia Díaz, a professor who leads the CUAM (Catedras Universitarias del Adulto Mayor), a program run through universities, which provides continuing education courses for the elderly. Antonia works to promote healthy, active lifestyles for the elderly, and to increase respect and awareness about “abuelidad,” which I can only translate as “grandparenthood”. Antonia proudly introduces herself as a very happy 91 year old.

Barbara Perez Casanova, a small business owner, or cuentapropista. In October 2010, Barbara, 26, was among the first to apply for a license to work in the private sector after its opening to new categories of business.  She runs a small storefront in a self-employment zone, selling shoes and clothing. Barbara says that cuentapropistas are still facing an uphill battle, as they deal with inspectors, high taxes, and difficulties in acquiring the products to sell. However, she enjoys the independence that comes with running her own business, and has been able to save up some money to invest in fixing up her house.

Magia López, a rapper in the group Duo Obsesíon, and Sandra Álvarez, psychiatrist and specialist in race and gender issues. Magia and Sandra both live in the community of Regla, across the bay from Havana. Regla is a working-class, predominantly Afro-Cuban neighborhood. Magia and Sandra both work to raise awareness of societal problems relating to race and gender – they see their criticisms as essential to improving their country. Sandra maintains a blog, entitled “Negra cubana tenía que ser” (It had to have been a black Cuban woman), where she addresses these issues openly. Magia uses hip hop music as her medium, like in this song, “Los Pelos,” which expresses pride for her natural hair. We also highly recommend this video, a rap song in homage to Cuban mothers, featuring Magia’s mother-in-law.

This trip was a true lesson in the power of human interaction. As trip leaders, Sarah and I were consistently inspired by the interactions we saw taking place before us. They were a reminder of how much these women – from such seemingly different countries and situations – share in common.

What has been so often missing from the debate in our country about Cuba is our shared humanity. It is our hope that policymakers, academics, and advocates in our country are inspired by these women as well.

We arrived back in DC refreshed and eager to continue our work, breaking down the barriers that have been imposed between the people of our two countries. We appreciate your accompaniment and continued support in the work that we do.

Antonia Diaz

Antonia Díaz, speaking at CDA’s book celebration

delegation1

Members of our delegation with new friends in Cienfuegos

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Our delegation in Regla with Sandra Álvarez and some of our other hosts

Lisa Ndecky Llanos
Program Manager
Center for Democracy in the Americas

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