Cuba and Russia, a tale of two USAID programs; Obama Moves on Terror List (Not on Cuba)

September 21, 2012

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As we published this week’s blast, news alerts were issued that the “People’s Mujehedeen,” or MEK, is being removed from the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations, based in part, the NY Times is reporting, on the MEK’s cooperation in moving 3,000 of its members out of its long time location in Iraq.  Now that Cuba has recently been recognized for its diplomatic role in peace talks soon to take place between Colombia’s government and the FARC, we would like to believe that Cuba will be rewarded for its cooperation and removed from the State Sponsors of Terror list (see more below).

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We’ve written before about the serious problems posed to U.S. interests by the “regime change” programs financed by USAID and undertaken in Cuba.  We return to this subject this week and want to explain why.

Days ago, the New York Times published this story, Russia Demands U.S. End Support of Democracy Groups.  $50 million in aid will be cut off.  This follows actions by Russia’s government to require organizations which receive such aid to register as foreign agents.  The article makes clear that Russia is now clamping down hard on dissent, but that a number of other U.S. allies have also objected to these programs run by “outside groups telling them how to run their affairs.”

Victoria Nuland, the State Department spokeswoman, is quoted saying about Russia’s decision to end the USAID role, “It is their sovereign decision to make,” and the Times went on to reflect her view that if Russia didn’t want the money, it could be better spent elsewhere.

Later, the State Department released the transcript of her official briefing in which she explained:

“…we have committed to the Russian Government that there’ll be no new contracting, no new programming, as of October 1st. But we have also asked for some time to wind down the mission, to conclude the programs that we have underway.”

The U.S. government through USAID operates a considerably more aggressive program in Cuba, aimed explicitly at overturning the island’s government.  Cuba outlawed participation in these programs in the late 1990s, as the U.S. government well knows.  Yet, as previously accounted in Foreign Policy, the State Department and USAID have wasted about $200 million conducting these efforts over the past ten years and have little to show for them.

Because they operate covertly, and Cubans who are touched by these programs often know nothing of their provenance, they put the intended beneficiaries at great legal risk – but not only Cubans.  Alan Gross, a USAID contractor, is serving a fifteen-year sentence in a Cuban prison, after entering the island falsely using a tourist visa on five occasions, bringing with him high technology communications equipment, as AP reported, including a specialized mobile chip often used by the Pentagon and CIA when they need to make satellite signals impossible to track.

Mr. Gross has suffered greatly since his arrest on December 9, 2009.  But the administration seems, to put it charitably, somewhat disengaged toward his plight.  As Fulton Armstrong, a retired analyst formerly with the National Security Council and Senate Foreign Relations Committee, explained in the Miami Herald:

“When a covert action run by the CIA goes bad, and a clandestine officer gets arrested, the U.S. government works up a strategy for negotiating his release.  When a covert operative working for USAID gets arrested, Washington turns up the rhetoric….and refuses to talk.”

Alan’s wife, Judy Gross, recently returned from Cuba deeply concerned about his physical condition.  Long-time advocates of cutting off travel to Cuba colorfully call Mr. Gross a hostage, and urge the Obama administration to turn the screws of sanctions tighter to force his release.   The Obama administration’s public posture is to demand that Cuba’s government unilaterally release him, but has never explained why it would do so after he was convicted of violating their laws.

In the case of Russia, the Obama administration was presented with a problem – Russia’s demand to cut off the democracy promotion programs it operates in that country – and it responded by conducting a negotiation to end them, because they recognized Russia’s sovereignty and are willing to find another way to help Russian NGOs.

For Mr. Gross’s predicament, this is the model, and it starts by respecting Cuba’s sovereignty.

Just this week, Cuba’s government again offered to sit down and talk with the United States about resolving his case.  There is no rational reason that should deter our government from doing so.   The two governments should sit down, right away, and hash this out.  Otherwise, the Obama administration must be asked: if it’s prepared to negotiate with Russia on USAID programs, why is it unwilling to do so to free Mr. Gross?

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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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