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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If Cuba policy were a holiday call center

December 21, 2012

If Cuba policy were a holiday call center, the recording on your phone would be saying, “The next available customer representative will assist you in 50 years.”

So, who can you reach when things just aren’t right?

Who do you call when Cuba releases political prisoners, removes restrictions on its citizens to travel, opens up its private sector so that entrepreneurs can lead more prosperous, independent lives, but your government moves the goal posts and signals that just because Cuba met its last set of demands that won’t stop the U.S. imposing new hurdles rather than changing the policy?

Who do you call when Cuba is brokering the peace process between Colombia and the FARC, but the U.S. government continues to insist that Cuba belongs on the State Sponsors of Terror list because it allows representatives of the FARC to live in Cuba?

Who do you call when every other country in the Hemisphere says we must welcome Cuba into the next Summit of the Americas or that meeting isn’t going to happen, and the State Department – in charge, after all, of relationships with our allies in the region –pretends that call for action never happened?

Who do you call when several of the most respected Cuban scholars get turned down for visas to attend the Latin America Studies Association conference for being threats to national security, when they’ve been invited into the U.S. on multiple occasions by the same agency denying entry?

Who do you call when taxpayer money subsidizes slimy attacks against Cuba’s Catholic Cardinal written by an executive of Radio/TV Marti when the church in Cuba is fighting for the same values that our government says it is upholding with its policy?

Who do you call if you’re Chuck Hagel, an apparent candidate for Secretary of Defense, when you’re getting trashed for thinking outside the box on foreign policy issues from the Middle East to the U.S. embargo of Cuba (and he hears mostly crickets from the White House)?

Who do you call if you facilitate legal travel to Cuba, as the President tried to encourage with his reforms last year, but another arm of the U.S. government is freezing payments and menacing Internet companies who service your website and email?

These are only a few of our hang-ups from the last twelve months.

As we have lamented – and admitted – before, the administration never accorded Cuba (or Latin America) policy a terribly high priority, and it has its hands full right now taking on the lobbies that are fighting progress on our economy and on gun safety.  We get that.

The president already has ample executive authority to make changes–as common place as making it easier to sell food to Cuba, and as big as removing Cuba from the State Sponsors of Terrorism List–that could go a long way toward disconnecting his policy from the Cold War and modernizing our approach to the circumstances that prevail now.

He just needs to answer the call of history.

If he did, that would be a great holiday gift to the American people and the Cuban people – who have been on hold for the better part of six decades.

We are taking next week off.  We look forward to bringing you the news about Cuba and U.S. policy in 2013.

Peace.

The Cuba Central News Blast Team

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The Paralysis of Analysis and the Politics of Denial

November 16, 2012

As we predicted last week, the United Nations General Assembly approved a resolution condemning the U.S. embargo of Cuba.  This was not, we confess, a very difficult prediction to make, since the U.N. has made this statement for twenty years.  We also predict the U.N. will keep on doing so until the policy changes. In the meanwhile, we enjoyed The Nation’s stellar description of the vote saying the resolution was adopted by a “thumping majority.”  That was good writing.

Here’s something, however, we didn’t anticipate; namely, that people would still be pouring over the presidential election vote in Florida and, at this late date, arguing over what it means.  These are not unconnected events.

Ian Williams, a senior analyst with Foreign Policy in Focus put it this way:

“The UN vote on the Cuba embargo reminds us yet again that U.S. foreign policy is concocted in a bubble detached from the real world, where most nations recognize that the boycott is designed to pander to the most reactionary Cuban émigrés in Florida.”

This is why there is a lot of hand-wringing and hand-waving over who exactly won the Cuban American vote in Florida.  We know that President Obama won the Latino vote nationally, won Florida and, as former U.S. Senator George LeMieux put it, “it even appears that President Obama may have won the Cuban vote in Florida, a previously unimaginable result.”  His thinking was in line with Miami Democratic pollster Bendixen & Amandi International whose exit polls showed Mr. Obama won the Cuban vote, 51-49 percent over Romney.

The Miami Herald also reported, “Obama actually won Cuban-Americans who voted on Election Day itself, taking 53% of their vote compared to 47 percent for Republican Mitt Romney.”  But the Herald, like others, goes on to say that, in the end, “Romney narrowly carried Cuban-Americans, 52-48 percent, which is a decrease for Republicans when compared to 2008.”  Anyhow, as ABC News concluded, “Cuban-Americans (are) No Longer a Sure Bet for the GOP.”

Mauricio Claver-Carone, who runs the Cuba Democracy Public Advocacy Corp., and supported Governor Romney, said these historically high defections were the fault of Paul Ryan, Mr. Romney’s vice presidential nominee, who was against the embargo before he was for it.  That, he said, “created skepticism among some Cuban-Americans and gave them (Democrats) an opening to make a case on economic and social issues.”

This is actually quite clever.  Think about what Mr. Claver-Carone is arguing:  the biggest supporters of a hardline policy, who didn’t think the Romney ticket was hardline enough, voted instead for the candidate Mr. Claver-Carone had previously said was guilty of “unilateral appeasement” of the Castro government.

Will this mean anything for Cuba policy going forward?  It should. If the Cuban-American community that has insisted that the U.S. stick with the embargo policy for five decades is now divided, it will be exposed as a political façade, a Potemkin village, freeing the political system at last to the change the policy.

Back to Mr. Williams:  “Obama, embarking on a second term, and winning Florida despite the Cuban vote, owes them nothing. He should use his influence to call off the embargo and allow free travel to and from Cuba.”

That is an idea that would win a thumping majority not just in the U.N. but throughout our country as well.

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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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Cuba and the Hurricane

November 2, 2012

As the U.S. tries to recover from the impact of Hurricane Sandy on our shores, Cuba is facing an immense humanitarian tragedy, with long-term implications for its economy, food security, and its future.

Sandy hit Cuba last Thursday, October 25th, staggering the Eastern side of the island with the knock-out punch of a Category 2 hurricane.  Winds gusted in excess of 108 miles per hour.  According to preliminary estimates, the storm killed 11 Cubans and caused more than $2 billion in losses.

The UN said the storm damaged at least 180,000 homes, affecting more than one million people, and ruined crops across nearly a quarter-million acres of farmland.  State-run media said damage to homes in the provinces of Santiago and Holguin was actually higher.

The Associated Press reported that Santiago de Cuba, the island’s second largest city, most directly affected by Hurricane Sandy, lost power and running water for days.  The wire service quoted reports in the Communist party newspaper Granma of “severe damage to housing, economic activity, fundamental public services and institutions of education, health and culture.”

“The reality is much worse than what you can see in the pictures or on TV,” said President Raúl Castro,  who witnessed the storm’s aftermath.  “Santiago is a moving sight,” he said, “it looks like a bombed city.”

The scope and size of the tragedy is so broad, that Cuba postponed a nationwide military drill, The Bastion 2012 Exercise, until the first half of 2013.

Instead, President Castro said “what was needed now was to ‘make a detailed plan for the recovery of the regions (affected by the hurricane) and make a collection of all the resources they may need’.”

News accounts portray utter devastation.  Earlier this week, one Cuban wrote “The sight of women, elderly individuals and children sifting through debris to salvage whatever was left of their belongings was simply heartbreaking.”

In an interview with AP, Berta Serguera, an 82-year-old retiree said, “It’s indescribable.  The trees have been shredded as if with a saw. My mango only has a few branches left, and they look like they were shaved.”

Cuba, which already buys over 80 percent of its food from suppliers abroad, is facing a food security nightmare.  According to the BBC, first Vice President, Jose Ramon Machado said one of the biggest problems facing the government was guaranteeing food supplies for the people in the affected areas in the coming months.

According to AFP, the United Nations is reporting “The toll on the farm sector will have major repercussions around the country.”  It added, “Sugar cane was the single hardest hit followed by plantain and bananas, vegetables and other basic crops” such as beans.

Reuters said the storm decimated the country’s coffee crop, leaving behind between “20 percent and 30 percent of the crop on the ground, damaged processing centers and roads and felled thousands of trees upon plantations as it pummeled the Sierra Maestra Mountains, where 92 percent of the crop is grown.”

Cubans accustomed to protections afforded by the nation’s storied civil defense system were reported to be shocked by the number of deaths, even though its procedures undoubtedly kept the death count from climbing higher.  At least, fifty-two were lost in nearby Haiti.

“This is one of the most severe hurricanes to hit Eastern Cuba. Despite very good preparedness on the part of Cuban authorities, people were  less prepared because the storm followed an unusual trajectory, and directly affected the city of Santiago de Cuba –which is not usually in the path of Caribbean hurricanes,” said Christina Polzot, CARE’s Representative  in Cuba. “The Cuban Government coordinated the evacuation of 343,230 people, many of which remain seeking shelter with extended family, which creates significant over-crowding in these homes.

According to numerous reports, a recovery effort by Cuba’s government is underway.  Prensa Latin said brigades of engineers and builders from provinces throughout Cuba were making progress in recovering electricity and communications.  By Wednesday, “phones and electricity were gradually being restored with the help of workers brought in from other regions. In Holguin, 73 per cent of customers had the lights back on.”

In the meanwhile, when Santiago de Cuba was able to reopen its international airport on Tuesday, “one of the first arrivals was a Venezuelan aid flight carrying 14 tons of food,” and the government in Caracas announced that hundreds of tons more would be flown to Cuba as well as Haiti, also hard-hit by the storm.  Bolivia has committed to sending 120 tons of humanitarian aid, as well.

But, there is no minimizing what lies ahead for the Cuban people. “The secretary general of Caritas Cuba said it will take years for the eastern section of the country to recover from Hurricane Sandy.”

Crops can take years to recover and homes years more to rebuild.  And Cuba’s economy is very short of cash.

There is an unfortunate irony to this.  Four years ago, Cuba suffered devastating blows from storms named Gustav, Ike, and Paloma which inflicted $10 billion in damage to housing and agriculture.

In 2008, U.S. policy barred Cuban Americans from rushing to the island to offer solace and assistance to their families.  President Bush imposed a regulation limiting family travel and cutting down on the financial assistance Cubans living here could offer Cubans there.  And, of course, there was the embargo which meant that another generation of Cubans watched their powerful neighbor to the north do nothing while they suffered and more distant countries rushed to their aid.

The good news is that President Obama lowered the gates on family travel in 2009 and by changing the rules enable Cuban Americans to visit the island and provide financial support to their families without limit.

Now, members of Cuba’s opposition are urging the government to eliminate taxes and fees which they say could inhibit Cuba’s access to relief supplies. It is important to note that such customs duties are only levied on items sent from person to person. Lifting them temporarily could cause an influx of goods onto the black market to be sold at high prices to those in need. Conversely, donations sent through established organizations are not subject to duties and these resources will be distributed free of charge and in an orderly and prioritized fashion.

We’d like to see the U.S. government act. It should punch a hole in the embargo, for at least six months, and authorize the sale of emergency building materials to Cuba for home construction. This wouldn’t be charity or cost taxpayers a dime. Legislation to make this change has already been drafted.  In fact, it was introduced in 2008 by Representatives Delahunt (D-MA) and Flake (R-AZ) when Cuba was last pummeled by storms.  But, of course, it died in committee, while American policy makers pretended not to notice that Cubans were suffering.

A friend of ours said at the time, “the test for all governments in a situation like this is to put politics aside and to do what has to be done in every possible way to help people.”

We don’t have to wait for the White House or the Congress to recover their conscience.  We can make donations to Cuba ourselves.  It’s time for US to be good Samaritans.

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