Holiday Edition: Memorial Day, Obama, and Cuba

May 24, 2013

Dear Friends:

This weekend in the U.S., we celebrate Memorial Day.  Started in 1868, following the Civil War,  this holiday has served as an annual remembrance of the nation’s war dead.  Flowers and American flags are placed at grave sites of service members who were casualties in the nation’s wars.  It was first called “Decoration Day.”

President Barack Obama spoke on the eve of the Memorial Day weekend at the National War College on U.S. counter-terrorism strategy.

The speech, available in full here, is summarized in a New York Times editorial The End of the Perpetual War, which reads in part:

For the first time, a president stated clearly and unequivocally that the state of perpetual warfare that began nearly 12 years ago is unsustainable for a democracy and must come to an end in the not-too-distant future.

Of course, no counter-terrorism speech by a U.S. president, even one about dismantling some of the dangerous policies his administration inherited from its predecessor, would be complete without a list of interventions, swords and ploughshares, which will remain active parts of U.S. foreign policy going forward.

But, of critical interest to us, Mr. Obama also said the following:

  • Now is the moment to ask hard questions about the nature of today’s threats and how we should confront them, because what we do affects our standing in the world and our vital interests in the region.
  • He warned that “Unless we discipline our thinking, our definitions, our actions, we may be drawn into more wars we don’t need to fight, or continue to grant Presidents unbound powers more suited for traditional armed conflicts between nation states.”
  • He quoted James Madison, our fourth president, who said “No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”
  • Most of all, he defined the current threat as “lethal yet less capable al Qaeda affiliates; threats to diplomatic facilities and businesses abroad; homegrown extremists. This is the future of terrorism.”

Tellingly, in a speech that ran to nearly seven-thousand words and defined the future of counter-terrorism policy, President Obama never mentioned “Cuba”.  Not once.

And yet, this is the same President Obama who decided to keep Cuba on the State Sponsors of Terrorism list for the thirty-first consecutive year.  The same president who – we are now told – is excluding from entry into the United States some of Cuba’s most important scholars so they cannot attend a meeting of the Latin American Studies Association in Washington next week.  Some states of perpetual war, as George Orwell might have said, are more equal than others.

Just a year after Decoration Day was first celebrated, African-Americans in Baltimore turned out for a demonstration.  As the Baltimore Sun reported, “A procession including the Sons of Gideon, Lincoln Rangers and the Hannibal Club formed in downtown Baltimore and marched to the cemetery under the banner held aloft by Capt. William H. Butler that proclaimed, ‘Give us equal rights and we will protect ourselves.’”

By turning out to remind their city of the wartime sacrifices by all soldiers, black and white, they expressed their democratic faith in an effort to make their country better.

On the eve of this Memorial Day, we simply express the hope that when the subject of Cuba and the terror list next arises, President Obama will remember the remarks he delivered at a time when he set politics aside and apparently said what he actually believes.

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Settling with Alan Gross, DAI Changes Its Tune, If Not Its Talking Points

May 17, 2013

On Thursday, Development Alternatives, Inc. (DAI) agreed to make a secret financial payment to Alan and Judy Gross to settle the lawsuit the couple filed against it last year.

DAI lured Alan Gross with a lucrative contract to smuggle banned satellite communications equipment into Cuba on a mission that left him serving a 15-year prison sentence.

The settlement applies to the Beltway contractor and not its codefendant, the United States.  This agreement – Tracey Eaton makes the text available here – is sealed and confidential.  But, the lawsuit has already yielded significant disclosures about U.S. regime change programs in Cuba and the settlement marks a new phase for DAI.

DAI’s profile was raised a few weeks after the arrest, when James Boomgard, its chief executive, insisted in an interview that Alan Gross had done nothing wrong.

“It’s such an innocuous, innocent thing.  I’m not a Cuba expert,” he said, “but other people who understand the politics of this are puzzled as well.”  He went on to say that Gross never met with dissidents and that “there are no satellite phones involved.”

This was a curious, call it Freudian, assertion, which Boomgard should have known to be untrue.

As Desmond Butler wrote in his groundbreaking piece USAID contractor work in Cuba detailed, Alan Gross was bringing in satellite consoles known as BGANS, satellite phones, and other forms of equipment to Cuba, that was the point of this long-standing DAI project, and as he said in a trip report filed before his last trip and capture, it would be “problematic if exposed.”

Problematic indeed.  Unlike the ten spies rolled up and exchanged for spies in Russian prison in 2010, or Raymond Davis, the CIA contractor in Pakistan, freed from prison by payments of “bereavement money” after he murdered two motorists in the street, Mr. Gross has been left sitting in prison for more than three years as some Members of Congress cautioned U.S. officials not to negotiate for his release.

Late last year, the Gross family filed a $60 million law suit against DAI and the United States and accused the defendants of negligence, gross negligence, and the willful disregard of their rights.

In the case of DAI, the family argued when they sent him to Cuba with satellite network communications gear, they didn’t warn him of the risks, protect him from the risks, educate or train him to reduce the risks, and they didn’t stop him from returning to Cuba when they knew he was in danger, because it would have cost DAI a lot of money under their rich regime change contract.

For Mr. Boomgard, who once cooed, “helping people is all that Alan has done in Cuba and elsewhere,” this must have been more than he could bear.  $60 million is a lot of money.

So, DAI, rather aggressively went into court demanding the suit be dismissed because, frankly, Alan Gross wasn’t their problem.  DAI argued it had no duty to protect Alan Gross from the injury he suffered due to his confinement.

DAI claimed it enjoyed “sovereign immunity,” and like the federal government, it could not be sued. Without such immunity, contractors like them could never find pawns like Alan Gross to do their risky business in Cuba.  Ruling against DAI would put the court in a position of undermining the foreign policy of the United States.

This is what they said in January.  By May, they changed their tune; except, of course, so far as Jim Boomgard is concerned.

“We have been clear from day one that Alan’s safe return to his family is our first priority,” he said Thursday in a joint statement with Judy Gross.  “Settling this litigation allows us to work together on that overriding goal.”

Although the settlement includes a non-disclosure agreement between the Gross family and DAI, Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archive is hopeful that more information could come out.

“Alan Gross himself deserves credit for indirectly admitting, through this lawsuit to the extensive illicit operations he was involved in and exposing the false representations of the Obama Administration about what he, DAI and USAID were doing.  If the State Department doesn’t settle, perhaps Gross’s lawyers can force the release of even more damning information about this controversial U.S. effort to roll back the Cuban revolution.”

That said, we may never know what really made DAI decide to settle.  But here’s a clue.

Two years ago, the company was named a “Top Innovator” in a global poll of international development professionals.

Accepting the award, Dr. James Boomgard effused, “it’s an honor to be recognized for the fresh thinking and resourcefulness we try to bring to the world’s development challenges.  As employee-owners, we have a very personal stake in the ideas, products, and services we are bringing to the marketplace in service of that mission.”

It’s always about the Benjamins.  The settlement undoubtedly saved DAI lots of money, but they won’t tell you how much.  It’s a secret.

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On Next Week’s Vote (the U.N.) and Last Week’s Vote (the U.S.)

November 9, 2012

On November 13th, the U.N. General Assembly will vote on a resolution titled the “Necessity of ending the economic, commercial and financial embargo imposed by the United States of America against Cuba.”

The General Assembly has voted against U.S. policy for twenty straight years.  In 2011, the resolution passed by 186 in favor versus 2 against (Israel and the U.S.), with 3 abstentions (Micronesia, Marshall Islands and Palau).

We can guarantee you two things about next week’s vote:  The resolution will pass in a landslide, and it will attract little notice in the U.S., which is a disgrace.

U.S. sanctions against Cuba are among the most restrictive our government imposes against any nation. With few exceptions (limited legal travel, some agriculture sales, and highly regulated medical trade) U.S. citizens and corporations are prevented by the embargo from buying or selling into the Cuban market.

The embargo is unilateral.  No one willingly joins the U.S. in enforcing it.  But our sanctions exert pressure on countries that trade with Cuba, foreign companies that do business in Cuba, the international financial system, and humanitarian agencies to try and stop the flow of money, commerce, aid, technology, spare parts, and the like to Cuba.  In doing so, we are trying to run the foreign policies of every state in the world community and they resent it. That’s the point of the U.N. vote; they get to say so.

Next Tuesday, here’s just a brief list of who will line up to vote their scorn of U.S. policy: Australia, Brazil, China, the entire European Union, all the governments in Latin America and the Caribbean, India, Japan, Russia, and South Africa, even the Vatican.

Here, we must point out:  when Pope Benedict the XVI visited Cuba this year, he didn’t have to apply to the U.S. Treasury Department for a license to travel before he went.  Perhaps the Holy See regards U.S. sanctions as a moral issue.

It’s that, and more.  U.S. policy is cruel to Cubans.  It imposes arbitrary limits on our freedom to travel.  It hurts U.S. industries that could do business on the island.  It thwarts direct U.S. engagement with Cuba’s government on security and environmental issues.  And, it’s failed to achieve what the Cold Warriors who designed it intended; namely, to replace Cuba’s political and economic system with parts designed in Washington and installed in Havana.

Finally, the embargo hurts us in Latin America and the world.  So, after twenty years of getting a black eye at the U.N., isn’t it time to blink?  Or think?

Carlos Iglesias, a U.S. Navy Commander and a candidate for a Master’s Degree at the Army War College, believes that the time has arrived.  His thesis, submitted last month, said this about the “longstanding blowback” against the policy globally and concludes it isn’t worth the cost:

“…decades-long sanctions against the island have netted few if any national objectives, all the while depleting substantial national soft power. The cost-benefit analysis to U.S. national foreign policy will remain exceedingly unfavorable, if not outright counter-productive.”

We’re hopeful President Obama understands this intellectually.  Now, he can take command politically.  He’s been reelected to a second term.  He won Florida, and scored an unprecedented victory winning a majority of the Cuban-American vote.  There is no longer any justification for him to remain tethered to this failed policy.

He’s still stuck with much the same Congress, a lagging indicator, so often steps behind public opinion.  But after his victory, the president is free – not to be a laggard but a leader.  He can use his executive authority to start dismantling sanctions first imposed on Cuba before he was born and, by doing so, get our national interest and the international community into alignment.

That’s the right thing to do.

Who knows?  Maybe Rep. Paul Ryan will return to his original pro-travel, pro-trade position that he adopted at the start of his career in Congress, since the campaign is behind him, too.

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