LASA Edition: The US Needs a Cuba Policy Worthy of Its Ideals

May 23, 2014

Days before we arrived in Chicago for the Congress of the Latin America Studies Association, the New York Times ran an obituary for William Worthy, who died earlier this month at age 92.

Worthy, a path-breaking African-American journalist, interviewed Fidel Castro and filed stories on Cuba’s race relations, traveling to Cuba only with a birth certificate for identification. Upon his return, he was prosecuted for entering the U.S. without a passport, convicted, and sentenced to prison.

He won his appeal, as the Times explained, on the grounds that “the lack of a passport was insufficient ground to bar a citizen from re-entering the country.”

Five decades later, questions around Cuba and the free exchange of ideas continue to force distance between the U.S. government and our country’s ideals.

***

When LASA meets in the United States, it struggles to get visas for all of the Cuban academics invited to attend.

In prior years, under Republican and Democratic administrations, visa denials put a damper on Cuban participation; at times, the politics of exclusion were so extreme, LASA moved the conference elsewhere in the region rather than bring its scholars and intellectual dynamism to our shores.

Although the U.S. deserves credit for granting visas this year to the great number of Cubans who applied, four important intellectuals did not get in.  Their absence affects us directly.  Sitting as we did to hear a panel Thursday morning titled “Talking with Cuba: The Search for U.S.-Cuban Accommodation,” where scholars reviewed the history and the lessons from fifty-plus years of bilateral negotiations, we missed hearing Dr. Soraya Castro’s unique perspective.

Saturday, when our panel discusses economic reform and its impact on women, the audience won’t get to hear from Daybel Pañellas, a psychologist at the University of Havana.  She is helping us assemble an analysis of scholarly literature on reform and women. Also excluded were our friend, Rafael Hernández, editor of Temas, a Cuban social science magazine, and Omar Everleny Pérez, a remarkably candid economist from the University of Havana.

These academics – hardly threats to U.S. national security – could have brought their own intellectual energy and credibility to this year’s Congress; and we will never know why our government chose to make them non-combatants in LASA’s spirited exchange of ideas.

***

To be sure, the tolerance for dissenting views in our country has grown substantially since William Worthy was arrested after returning from Cuba.

This week, for example, an astonishingly diverse roster of former U.S. officials, some who once held pretty strong pro-sanctions views, signed a letter to President Obama offering their support for policies to increase the number of U.S. travelers to Cuba and boost the flow of capital to entrepreneurs in Cuba’s private sector.

While we favor more far-reaching reforms, and would’ve written a different letter, it notably attracted John Negroponte, the former Director of National Intelligence; Andres Fanjul, co-owner of sugarcane producer Fanjul Corp.; Michael Parmly and Vicki Huddleston, former heads of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana; former Clinton and Obama Cabinet Secretaries like Bruce Babbitt, Ken Salazar and Hilda Solis; as well as former Rep. Jane Harman, former EPA Director Carol Browner, and others to a clear statement favoring real changes in U.S. policy.

A similar shift can be seen among the Cuban diaspora in the U.S.  Sure, there are holdouts – heard in the shrill denunciations of the letter to the president and the debut of #CubaNow – but a new school of thought has clearly taken root where the old held sway.

As the BBC observed this week, “times are changing in Little Havana.  To be Cuban American in Miami once meant supporting the embargo, almost as an article of identity and faith. That is no longer the case.”  There was a similar finding in a poll this year by the Atlantic Council, which found even higher support for better relations with Cuba in Florida than it found nationally.  This change in sentiment can also be found among the men and women who met in Washington recently who came here in the Pedro Pan airlift decades ago.

At the center of both the Cuban-American community and the foreign policy establishment, we see evidence of how embracing a real debate and new ideas can drive a shift toward reform.

***

In “The Ballad of William Worthy,” the folksinger Phil Ochs captured well the conflict between how the U.S. behaves and the ideas it likes to profess:

William Worthy isn’t worthy to enter our door.
Went down to Cuba, he’s not American anymore.
But somehow it is strange to hear the State Department say,
You are living in the free world, in the free world you must stay.

If the Obama Administration wanted to reconcile its actions with our values, sitting down with Cuba – acknowledging its sovereignty as a prelude to discussing our differences directly – would be a good way to begin.

Anyhow, that’s part of what the scholars on the “Talking with Cuba” panel discussed on Thursday. Too bad everyone wasn’t around to hear them.

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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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