Democracy: Is there an app for that?

July 3, 2014

We are on the cusp of our July 4th holiday here in the U.S., when we remember the revolutionary origins of our country and celebrate our independence with baseball, beer, and displays of fireworks accompanied by a spirited rendition of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.

Because we’re eager to finish the work week, we’re circulating our Cuba Central News Blast a little early so you can read the news now and all of us can join the party.

We start with Chip Beck, a U.S. citizen with ties to the CIA and the Navy.  According to this blog post on Wikistrat, between 1998 and 2001, while he was working as a freelance journalist, Beck traveled to Havana and received significant cooperation from the Cuban government as he investigated the disappearance of Americans in Asia, Africa, and Central America during the Cold War.  It’s a great story.

In Beck’s account of his five trips to the island, he describes familiar sounding offers by Havana to sit down and negotiate with Washington without preconditions, so long as the U.S. recognized Cuba as a sovereign nation.  He concludes by quoting a conversation he had on the Malecón with a Cuban he identifies only as a single mom with a college degree.

She said, “If you tell a Cuban what to do, he will do the opposite just to spite you. If you [Americans] stop telling us what to do, things will work out exactly like you want.”

Needless to say, this was very good advice which, a dozen years later, we’re still waiting for the U.S. government to heed.

Instead, President Obama, the 11th president in charge of foreign relations with Cuba’s revolutionary government, pursues the stale and failed policy he inherited from his predecessors.  On one track, he has made some important moves to promote two-way travel, family reconciliation, and modest forms of bilateral cooperation.  But, on the second track, he aggressively enforces the embargo with its international overreach to shut down Cuba’s access to finance and global trade.

As of last week, for example, his Administration had already imposed penalties totaling $4.9 billion against 22 banks for violating U.S. sanctions against doing business with Cuba.  That record was shattered by a penalty meted out against BNP Paribas, which pled guilty to two charges, agreed to pay a nearly $9 billion fine, and accepted bans for one and two years respectively on certain dollar clearing and processing activities – all for violations of sanctions against countries including Cuba.  This led the Bank of Ireland, which has “long-standing customers with legitimate business interests in Cuba,” to tell them it would no longer clear their transactions to or from Cuba, as the Independent reported.

At a time when tens of thousands of Cubans (like our friend Barbara Fernández) are working hard to take advantage of economic reforms – in cooperatives and private businesses – in order to live more prosperous and independent lives, tightening the screws on a policy that disregards their nation’s sovereignty and increases their daily struggles makes no sense.

Eric Schmidt, Google’s Executive President, who just wrapped up a visit to Cuba during which he voiced support for an open Internet, underscored the contradictory goals of U.S. policy in a blog post about his trip.

“The ‘blockade’,” he writes, “makes absolutely no sense to US interests: if you wish the country to modernize the best way to do this is to empower the citizens with smart phones (there are almost none today) and encourage freedom of expression and put information tools into the hands of Cubans directly.”

We were in Cuba at the same time as Google and heard Cubans express similar ideas.  They want an Internet opening to complement their economic opening.  They want workers, especially working women, to be able to get online and connect to their jobs from home.  They want a more lively public debate. Just as Cubans are now free to travel overseas, they want to be able to access more information without having to leave.  Dumping restrictions – whether on technology, U.S. travel, or finance – imposed by the U.S. would put what Cubans want in greater alignment with the ostensible goals of U.S. policy and help them get it.

Writing about the architects of our nation and their ideals, former Senator Gary Hart described what the Founders saw in history’s great republics: civic duty, popular sovereignty, resistance to corruption, and a sense of the commonwealth; what we own in common that binds us together.  Every time we visit the island, we see Cubans who share these ideals as well.

July 4th is a great day to celebrate the virtues of our system, which are many, but it can also be an occasion for some humility. In Cuba’s case, that means to stop telling them what to do, and showing respect to Cubans and their ability to figure out their future and how they want to live for themselves.

If you need help figuring out why, when we celebrate Independence Day, we set off fireworks to music commemorating Russia’s defense of Moscow against Napoleon, listen here.

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The Download on Cuba and the News Blast

March 14, 2014

This week, the News Blast is bursting with developments in Cuba and U.S. policy.

We imagine you want to get to it, so we’ll keep our introductory remarks – harrumph – relatively brief.

Earlier this week, we came across a well-worn speech delivered by President John F. Kennedy at the University of Washington in 1961.  This address came about a half-year after the Bay of Pigs invasion, nearly a full year before the Cuban Missile Crisis.

You can listen to the entire speech here and reach your own conclusions.  When we read his address, these two paragraphs nearly jumped off the page, and seemed to be written with a pen that could have described the world we see today.

We must face problems which do not lend themselves to easy or quick or permanent solutions. And we must face the fact that the United States is neither omnipotent nor omniscient – that we are only six percent of the world’s population – that we cannot impose our will upon the other ninety-four percent of mankind – that we cannot right every wrong or reverse each adversity – and that therefore there cannot be an American solution to every world problem.

These burdens and frustrations are accepted by most Americans with maturity and understanding. They may long for the days when war meant charging up San Juan Hill -or when our isolation was guarded by two oceans-or when the atomic bomb was ours alone – or when much of the industrialized world depended upon our resources and our aid. But they now know that those days are gone – and that gone with them are the old policies and the old complacencies. And they know, too, that we must make the best of our new problems and our new opportunities, whatever the risk and the cost.

Though Kennedy was an architect of the Cold War, there is evidence – as Peter Kornbluh and others have reported – that he saw the futility of trying to impose our will on Cuba in his day.  One might predict his astonishment that we are still trying to impose our will on Cuba in our day as well.

Our national fixation on Cuba did not begin with Fidel Castro or the Revolution in 1959.  It has been a part of this country’s historical arc, indeed an imperative of the U.S. national interest, since 1803.  That is the argument – offered with a precise mind and graceful hand – by Louis A. Pérez, renowned scholar at the University of North Carolina, in his forthcoming article, “Cuba as an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.”

Lou has offered us the opportunity to publish his study of how Cuba has coursed through our foreign policy and the veins of our national character for the better part of three centuries.  It reminds us of how we got here; how we arrived at the point when sanctions have lasted longer than our refusal to recognize the Soviet Union or China, years longer than it took us to reconcile with Vietnam, so long that Cuba has been under U.S. sanctions for almost half of its national existence as an independent republic.

This and more is captured in Lou’s piece, including the sadness in his description of why a failed policy has remained so long in place; “its continuance has no other purpose than to serve as a justification for its longevity.”

Much of what we do – what motivates our work, our trips to Cuba, our research, our passionate advocacy for reforming the policy, and especially the news blast we send you every week – is about living in the world John Kennedy foresaw in 1961, and finding new ways for Cuba and the U.S. to reach past this history and build a new relationship based on dignity and respect.

In the coming weeks, we will notify you in a separate blast about how you can download Lou’s piece absolutely free of charge.

In the meanwhile, we ask you this.

If you share our love of history and our belief in engagement; if you read the blast, support our work, and plan to download the article by Lou Pérez, why not give something back?

This news blast is a project of the Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA) – a non-profit, non-governmental organization based in DC. We take no government money, of course, but instead depend on the generosity of readers like you.

We deliver this news and analysis every Friday, and we’re glad it’s useful to you. But we could also really use your help.

There are others who compile Cuba news, and they charge for it.  We never have.  But if you can help us, it would really make a difference. Please consider making a donation today – large or small. Consider a one-time gift or a monthly pledge of $5, $10, $20. Our website makes it really easy.

But first you have to want to give back, and we hope you do. Please donate today.

We thank you very, very much!

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Opening the Flawed Gates

October 19, 2012

In the U.S. and overseas, Cuba’s government has been criticized for limiting the travel rights of its own citizens.  Those restrictions are often cited as an obstacle to the improvement of bi-lateral relations.  But now, change has come.

Today, we explain this new Cuban government policy that offers its citizens a path for both exit and return, and talk about what it means.  Finally, we ask whether Washington will simply ignore what has occurred, or react in a meaningful way.

This is news.  Effective January 14, 2013, the Cuban government will abolish the widely resented and costly exit visa and the accompanying invitation letter that Cubans have been required to obtain in order to travel abroad.  The reforms to the 1976 Migratory Law and 1978 Migratory Law Regulations, published in the Official Gazette, herald an enormous change.

As explained in Granma, the new migratory regulations were adopted as a “sovereign decision by the Cuban state [and] do not constitute an isolated act, but are rather an important component of the irreversible process underway to normalize relations with the country’s émigré community.”

Cuban Americans For Engagement (CAFÉ), whose members have been holding talks with representatives of Cuba’s government about eliminating barriers to reconciliation between Cubans on the island and in the diaspora, see this reform as evidence that engagement is the key to bringing about change.

Enthusiasm over this development has future travelers forming long lines at immigration offices to take advantage of the current passport fee, which will nearly double to $100 in mid-January. This price hike has prompted Senator Marco Rubio of Florida to dismiss the move as merely cosmetic and transferring the costs associated with the exit visa to the process of passport issuance. But the Senator is misinformed. In fact, the new law cuts costs by a third.

As we understand, the current fees for travel documents are roughly: passport, $55; exit visa, $150; and invitation letter, $100 and up. Under the new law, the passport will be the only necessary document. Those already holding a passport in January (including those standing in line today) will be able to get a free stamp to upgrade it to the new system.

Moreover, the permitted length of stay abroad has been expanded from 11 months to 24 months. This leads to major potential savings because Cubans are, and will continue to be, charged a monthly fee for extensions. The amount of this fee will remain unchanged. On the other hand, the law stipulates terms for pensioners to continue receiving their income while abroad or to designate a substitute recipient.

Although the reforms clearly delineate who will be considered eligible for a passport and travel and who will not, the wording in some instances is vague enough as to be open to interpretation. For example, one category of ineligible individuals includes those whose absence would hinder the preservation of a qualified workforce. But it should hardly come as a surprise the Cuba’s government would try to “attenuate the effects” of brain-drain, as Jesús Arboleya Cervera explains in Progreso Weekly, which “limits the development of Third-World countries.”

Less noticed, the reforms are not a one way street. For example, of special interest to Cubans who have absconded over the years while on authorized travel, starting next year, émigrés will be able to apply to recoup their residency directly at any of Cuba’s embassies or consulates.

There is fine print and more to learn, but on the whole, this is very good news.  Cuba moves closer to the travel freedoms for its citizens as urged by the human rights community.  Most Cuban citizens, come January, will be able to think, practically, about exit and return to the island, about employment elsewhere and sending money home to relatives.  This strikes a blow for the autonomy of everyday Cubans and the vitality of the Cuban economy.

To date, our State Department hasn’t offered much reaction.  When asked at her press briefing whether the U.S. would react positively to the reforms, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said:

MS. NULAND: Well, as you know, we’ve been very outspoken. We are not shy in all of our public and private comments on Cuba that we want to see the human rights of the Cuban people respected. This is certainly a step, but I would advise that even with regard to this step, we await further information, because as I said, it’s not being implemented until January 14th.

If the Eeyores at the State Department need inspiration for how to react, they could turn to CAFÉ, which implores the U.S. to reciprocate by eliminating the Cuba travel ban, thereby bringing U.S. “policy in line with international models.” Or to Rep. James McGovern (MA-3), whose recent essay in Politico calls upon next president to move beyond the Cold War and normalize relations with Cuba.

Now is the time for a creative and affirmative U.S. policy response.  But, we’re not holding our breath.  And we suspect the Cubans aren’t either.  That said, this is real change and it really ought to be acknowledged.

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